Chicagoan Tony Priolo started cooking at the age of eight with his Sicilian grandmother. Today he co-owns Piccolo Sogno, a Windy City restaurant featuring a menu of fresh, seasonal authentic Italian cuisine. He recently spent an afternoon with food editors showing them the many ways to get creative with Prosciutto di Parma, an authentic Italian-made ham recognized for its distinct sweetness, depth of flavor — which includes hints of nuttiness, and melt-in-your-mouth consistency. These attributes make it an attractive feature meat, a garnish or, with the growing trend in using the whole leg, a non-characterizing ingredient in all types of recipes.

To showcase its versatility as a non-characterizing ingredient, Chef Tony prepared an Italian bean soup made with the fatty skin from the leg. These end pieces have long been discarded by butchers. Now they are considered a delicacy and sold to chefs at a premium.

“The fat melts into the soup, providing flavorful richness,” he said. “I suggest making it at least one day ahead of serving to allow for full flavor development.”

He said that end pieces can also be cut into thicker slices and fried. These crispy pieces may be a garnish for soups, salads, pastas and even as a topper for deviled eggs and baked potatoes.

Other culinary concepts include mixing crispy prosciutto into ground beef burgers to intensify flavor or frying it up with all types of vegetables, from Brussels sprouts to fingerling potatoes. Slices can be used to line mini-muffin tins. Bake them until crispy, cool and serve filled with whipped cheese and savory or sweet garnish.

Chef Tony described how prosciutto partners well with other types of meats, as well as cheese, fruits and vegetables and can be used as a toast topping, in a sandwich or as part of a pasta dish. It can be wrapped around everything from asparagus to dates to melon to shrimp and can be served as is or baked into a savory hot treat.

Salting. Source: Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.

What is prosciutto?

Prosciutto translates to ham in Italian. It is made only from the hind legs of pigs and is aged during a dry-curing process. There are two types of prosciutto: cotto and crudo.

Prosciutto cotto is cooked ham. It is bright pink in color and lighter in flavor than the crudo form. This prosciutto is slowly cooked at controlled temperatures, then cut into tender, moist slices. Sometimes prosciutto cotto is seasoned or brined with herbs and spices.

Prosciutto crudo is never cooked, as the name suggests (crudo means raw in Italian). Seasoned and dry-aged to perfection, it has a deep red color and is marbled with streaks of flavorful fat. Prosciutto crudo should be sliced paper thin. It is delicately sweet yet intensely salty and flavorful, all while melting in the mouth.

Soup from Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.

How is prosciutto different from other hams?

Ham, by definition, is meat from the upper part of a pig’s leg that is salted and dried or smoked. The breed of pig, its diet and how it’s processed all influence the final product. Ham is not to be confused with bacon or pancetta, which are both made from pork belly. There are many forms of prosciutto, including American prosciutto, Jamón from Spain (Serrano or Iberico) and many varied Italian prosciuttos. They all have unique flavors from the regions where they’re produced. The quality of prosciutto is based on the curing process. The history of prosciutto production originated in Italy thousands of years ago and sets Prosciutto di Parma apart from other prosciuttos.

What is Prosciutto di Parma?

Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced in the countryside surrounding the city of Parma. The air is dry with aromatic breezes from the Apennine Mountains, which creates the perfect conditions for the natural curing of the hams while imparting a unique, sweet flavor into the prosciutto ham. Prosciutto di Parma is made under strict quality controls and is produced only using specially bred pigs, sea salt, air and time.

The specially selected heritage breed pigs are raised in 11 regions of Italy and approved by the Consorzio regulatory agency. The pigs are fed a healthy diet that includes acorns and the whey from Parmigiano Reggiano production, another culinary specialty from the region. Unlike other cured hams, which can be produced from pork raised anywhere, Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced from Italian-born and bred pigs raised according to the highest standards, on which they are monitored, inspected and traced. It is guaranteed 100-percent natural without any additives, preservatives, hormones or coloring agents, which may not be the case for other cured hams.

Toasts. Source: Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.

How is it made?

Once Consorzio-approved pig legs reach the prosciuttificio (processing plant), each ham is tagged with a button, indicating the date it began curing. Salting is completed by hand in a traditional manner, by the maestro salatore, or salt master, who uses only the minimal amount of sea salt necessary. This makes Prosciutto di Parma taste less salty than other cured hams. The leg is refrigerated at 34°F to 39°F with a humidity level of approximately 80 percent for about a week. It then gets a second thin coating of salt, which is left on another 15 to 18 days, depending on the weight of the leg. The hams then hang for 60 to 90 days in refrigerated, humidity-controlled rooms, to ensure the sea salt properly absorbs into the meat. After, they are washed with warm water and brushed to remove excess salt and impurities, then hung in drying rooms for a few days.

The final steps are all about air and time. The hams are hung on frames in well-ventilated rooms with large windows that are opened when the outside temperature and humidity are favorable. This allows for a constant and gradual drying. After about three months, the exposed surface of the meat has dried and hardened. It is softened with a mixture of lard, salt and pepper to prevent the external layers from drying too quickly. By around the seventh month in the process, the ham is transferred to a cellar, where there’s minimal air and light. Here the hams hang on racks to complete the curing process. By law, Prosciutto di Parma is cured at least 400 days, starting from date of first salting, with some cured for as long as three years.

Although many people are learning how to make prosciutto on their own, including chefs, Prosciutto di Parma still sets the standard. It is part of an age-old tradition passed on from generation to generation and the methods used thousands of years ago have remained consistent.

What is PDO status?

In 1996, largely due to the efforts of the Consorzio, Prosciutto di Parma became one of the first products to be awarded the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. PDO is a European Community certification system designed to protect names and traditions of high-quality European foods, made according to traditional methods in a defined geographic region.

The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma represents the Italian producers whose families have made Prosciutto di Parma for thousands of years. It was established in 1963 by 23 members producing 53,000 branded hams who wanted to protect and promote their product throughout the world. The Consorzio now has grown into a family of 150 Prosciutto di Parma producers supplying nearly nine million hams annually to markets globally. The production of every Parma Ham is still regulated by the strict laws defining the characteristics of Prosciutto di Parma, identified by the Parma Crown branded on every ham.