I started eating Grana Padano back when I was a poor college student.
Back then, I couldn’t afford real ParmigianoReggiano, the classic Italian cheese grated over pasta and pizza, or stirred into risotto and pesto. So when I found Grana Padano at my local grocery, I thought it was the next best thing: An intense, salty, hard Italian cheese that I could use wherever Parmesan was called for. I figured it would be just fine until I got that first post-college job and could buy the real thing.
But when I visited Italy last year, I realized I had it right all along. Tasted side by side with authentic Parmigiano, I actually preferred the less-expensive Grana Padano. It really is a great cheese.
Grana padano is a semi-fat hard cheese, made in pretty much the same way as the more-famous Parmigiano. The key differences: Real Parmigiano is only supposed to be made in the region of Emilia-Romagna, but Grana Padano can be made in a much larger area. Also, parmigiano is more tightly regulated, as far as what the cows can be fed and other such details.
I like it because it has a slightly bolder taste than Parmigiano, and a nice, firm texture. It grates up really well, perfect for sprinkling over ravioli or pasta, or using to make an Alfredo sauce. It’s also great on its own, with a bit of prosciutto, some olives, crusty bread, or some fruit.