Just about everyone knows there is more to Italian cooking than pasta. There is no denying it, pasta, with all its variations, is great. But a new appreciation has developed for specialties like cold veal with tuna sauce, deep-fried whole baby artichokes, panettone, stuffed pigs' feet, and pale straw-colored Parmesan cheese, the real thing, not sprinkled from a box.
An awareness has also developed for Italy's regional dishes. No, tomato sauce is not ubiquitous. Neither is pizza, nor fried mozzarella, nor pesto sauce. Each province has its indigenous specialties, and the Emilia-Romagna offers some of the best.
The area is rich and fertile, embracing some of the flattest parts of this mountainous country. Lovely mountains do add their beauty to the region, but flat plains allow for intensive wheat and rice farming, good grazing for sheep and cattle, and lush farmlands to provide produce for the table.
Although Bologne is the chief city of Emilia-Romagna, two of its best-known exports come from the nearby historic city of Parma. Say Parma to anyone interested in food, and cheese and ham spring to mind, and with good reason.
Prosciutto di Parma and Parmesan cheese have no peers when it comes to air-cured ham and robust cheese. A great pleasure is lost to those who know Parmesan cheese only as a grating cheese. Parmesan is an unparalleled treat when chunks of it are eaten with crusty bread.
Anyone who has visited Parma is struck by its tranquil beauty. It flanks the banks of a tributary of the undulating Po River. Stendhal, who lived there, made it the setting for his well-known novel "La Chartreuse de Parme," which cannot be found in any guidebook since it was just more of Stendhal's creative imagination.
Very real, however, are the pungent aromas that drift from the aging caves of the noble Parmesan cheese, which has been enjoyed for at least a thousand years. However, one should not confuse the real thing with other hard cheeses that are grouped together as grana (granular), which correctly describes the texture of the cheese. Size, method of production, aging, fat content and shape vary, but not the brittle, hard texture or spunky flavor.
Genuine Parmesan cheese wheels, which can weigh as much as 65 pounds, are aged for two to three years. By this time it has lost most of its humidity and has turned so hard that pieces are chipped, not sliced. That loss of humidity also helps explain its cost: 100 pounds of partly skimmed milk produce a meager 5 pounds of eating cheese. Though there are imitations and similar varieties, none captures the refined pungency of genuine Parmesan cheese.
These are qualities that can be capitalized upon to introduce new flavor experiences at your next dinner party. Use Parmesan in different ways. A refined, aged nugget nibbled with fresh fruit is a kingly finale to a meal, and a traditional Italian custom all over the boot-shaped country.
One could pair two of Parma's great specialties and scatter shreds of Parmesan over paper-thin slices of mildly sweet prosciutto ham. Add a light sprinkling of ground pepper and extra-virgin olive oil and the meal is off to an enlightened start.
Bring back a very popular dish of a decade or so back -- Parmigiana di Melanzane (eggplant Parmesan). This unctuous baked composition is rich and hearty enough to be a main course.
Sliced tomatoes with mozzarella cheese is a standard. Why not give it a switch and use Parmesan, a cheese you can really taste against the acidic red fruit. Again, a touch of ground pepper and olive oil blend all components together.
For hors d'oeuvres or first course, serve broiled mushroom caps stuffed with a mixture of soft, bland ricotta given a hearty boost with plenty of grated Parmesan cheese, pepper and chopped basil.
A rarely encountered Italian family dish is Agnello, Cacio e Uova (lamb stew with cheese). Lamb cubes are browned in olive oil and gently cooked with sliced onion, and moistened with white wine and beef stock. Just before serving, beat together a few eggs and a good handful of Parmesan cheese, stir in, and leave over low heat for a minute or two.
But not to ignore the obvious, no other cheese in the world lifts pasta dishes as does a generous shower of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. There are many gadgets on the market for grating cheese, but I find the mini electric grinder the handiest. For more even grinding, first cut the cheese into half-inch cubes.
Not at all Italian, but a new way to take advantage of the spirited flavor of Parmesan cheese, is a recipe from my newest book "Catch of the Day" (Consumer Reports Books, $13.95). It takes you only five minutes to prepare the dish, and a mere two minutes to cook it.
*** Scallops with Parmesan
Yields 4 servings as a first course.
12 ounces bay scallops
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
sprinkling of freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
Heat broiler. Rinse scallops and pat dry on paper towels. Mix scallops in bowl with wine, olive oil and pepper. Add 3/4 of cheese and gently mix together.
Divide scallop mixture among 4 individual gratin dishes or scallop shells. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top.
Place dishes on firm baking sheet and broil for about 2 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned. Serve at once.