Grana Padano: A Pesto-Perfect Cheese

Grana Padano, which costs a third of the price and still tastes like joy itself.

Grana Padano looks a lot like Parm. It’s dry and crumbly with a fruity smell and golden color. What’s the difference? True Italian Parmigiano Reggiano is highly regulated and can only be made from the milk of cows grazing in certain provinces during the months of April through November. Grana Padano, on the other hand, is made from milk around the region (Emilia-Romagna) all year long.

I put the two cheeses to the test. Before I started chopping basil, I sat down and ate a hunk of Grana Padano next to a nibble of real Parmigiano. Verrrrry similar. The GP was nutty and salty with a flaky, crystalline texture, but the flavor didn’t last very long. The Parm tasted much the same on the front end, but the flavor – oh, it kept going and going, turning tangy summersaults.

For pesto, Grana Padano is a perfect cheese. The pungent basil takes the lead, and the Grana Padano kicks its salty bass drum in the background. If you want the knock-your-socks-off flavor of Parm, you can always grate some and sprinkle it over your pasta as a garnish. I could have done that, but alas, I got a little carried away during my taste test and finished off all the Parm and the last of the truffle honey.

Did I feel guilty? No. Sometimes splendor is best enjoyed in private, and the Grana Padano was so good that I don’t think any of my neighbors noticed the difference.

2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
3 cloves of garlic (medium size)
½ cup pine nuts
1 cup grated Grana Padano
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

For a smooth pesto, combine ingredients in a food processor. For a more rustic version, use a mezzaluna (a curved blade with a handle built for rocking) and chop ingredients together in small amounts. Pesto tastes best the day it’s made, but it freezes well. Toss with pasta and fresh tomatoes, or spread it on baguette rounds and top with goat cheese for toasting. Leftover pesto also makes great salad dressing – just add olive oil and a little lemon juice or light vinegar.

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