PROSCIUTTO from Parma, Italy, prized for its sweet flavor and silken texture, will finally be sold again in the United States after an absence of 22 years.
A sample shipment of the rosy, air-dried ham arrived in New York yesterday for final approval by the United States Department of Agriculture. If all goes as expected, retailers and restaurants around the nation should begin cutting paper-thin slices of it in the next two weeks. Retail prices will range from a low of $14.95 a pound at Macy's to around $30 a pound in some other shops.
The prospect has generated excitement among connoisseurs. Giuliano Bugialli, the cookbook writer and teacher, said: ''It's superior even to many other varieties made in Italy because it is much sweeter and does not fall apart when you slice it. It is best to serve it as it is, or with figs or melon.''
In the United States, prosciutto - the Italian word for ham - has come to mean any Italian-style air-dried, cured ham. Such hams made in the United States, Switzerland and Canada lack the sweet, barely salty flavor, silky texture and mild, faintly spicy aroma of the genuine Parma ham.
Prosciutto di Parma, along with all other Italian pork products, was banned from the United States in 1967 after an outbreak of swine fever in Italy.
The pigs raised for Parma ham were not affected, but it has taken more than half a million dollars and a decade of testing for the Italian Government and the Parma ham producers, working with American officials and scientists, to prove that, should the pigs ever be infected, the swine fever virus could not survive the curing and aging methods used for Parma ham. Swine fever does not affect humans; the ban was imposed to protect American livestock.
The Department of Agriculture requires that hams for the American market be aged at least 400 days, about a month longer than is the rule in Italy. Sixteen of the 214 curing plants in Parma are producing hams approved for export to this country. Workers in these plants must follow sanitary regulations set forth by the United States.
Dr. Richard Bowen, senior staff veterinarian at the department, said, ''We feel assured that the prosciutto di Parma entering the United States poses no threat of bringing in foreign animal diseases.''
''Your Government has not been unreasonable,'' said Giovanni Frati, deputy director of the Consortium of Parma Ham Producers. ''It has actually helped us improve the product and in fact, now that prosciutto has been accepted by the United States, we expect that Japan may follow suit. That will be an important new market for us.''
Gianni Pagani, owner of Salumeria Pasini, a food shop in Parma, said the United States would be receiving the best Parma hams. ''We would like to be able to sell those hams ourselves all the time,'' he said.
Air-dried cured hams are also made near the Italian Alps, around Venice and also in Tuscany. But it is the climate around Parma, which lies on the south flank of the Po Valley, and the pigs' diet of whey from the manufacture of Parmesan cheese that give the ham its lovely delicacy.
Only sea salt, air and time go into the manufacture of Parma ham. There are no nitrites or other additives. The hams from 350 approved slaughterhouses arrive in the curing plant, are weighed and trimmed.
Metal seals bearing the date and the plant number are attached, and then the hams are chilled to around 34 degrees Fahrenheit and rubbed with sea salt. They rest for a week to let the salt penetrate, then are washed, resalted and refrigerated for 20 more days or so.
Then they are placed in cool rooms for about 80 days while the salt distributes itself inside the ham. By then the hams have lost nearly 20 percent of their original weight. They are washed again, rubbed with pig fat and hung to dry for at least 314 days in a cathedral-like curing room. The typical curing room is 400 feet long and can hold 40,000 hams.
Long narrow windows facing east and west allow prevailing breezes from the gently rolling countryside outside Parma, the Langhirano, to maintain the proper conditions for aging. Producers of Parma ham contend that this climate contributes to the fine flavor and texture of the hams. The hams destined for the American market are hung in a roped-off area posted with the date when the aging began and will end.
''We have set aside 30,000 to 35,000 hams for shipment to the United States the first year,'' Mr. Frati said. ''I have no idea how well they are going to sell. But one thing is certain: if the Americans don't buy them, someone else will.''
His uncertainty is echoed by others. ''I don't know what this prosciutto is going to mean to people after 20 years,'' said Lou Todaro, an importer and owner of Todaro Brothers, a food shop specializing in Italian products at 555 Second Avenue (31st Street) in Manhattan. ''Diets have changed and tastes have changed.''
Nancy Barocci, owner of Convito Italiano, a combination fancy-food shop and restaurant in Chicago with a branch in Wilmette, Ill., said, ''I believe people are willing to pay a premium for something that is better, but now that there are some very fine domestic prosciutti on the market, it remains to be seen whether they think the Parma ham will be worth the difference in price.''
The price of the Italian hams is expected to range from 10 percent higher to twice as much as the price of domestic prosciutto, depending on the restaurant or store.
At least half the hams produced for the American market are boneless, so they can be sliced easily. Prosciutto should be sliced to a paper-thin translucency and this is best done by machine. A chef or shopkeeper who simply takes a sharp knife to the ham is showing off, possibly to the detriment of the product, ham producers, shopkeepers and restaurateurs in Parma say.
Some reports about prosciutto have suggested that the best part of the prosciutto is called the culatello. But culatello is actually a different type of cured ham, made by a few small producers in the Parma area, none of which have received approval for export to this country.
In Parma, prosciutto is the ubiquitous first course, the rosy slices fanned out on a plate. Accompanying melon or fresh figs or even kiwi fruit are not essential but are sometimes included. In spring, asparagus may be served on the side. Slivers of the ham are also used in pasta sauces and stuffings.
In restaurants here, the genuine prosciutto from Parma will also be served simply.
''I'd like to try offering only the Italian ham as a special,'' Ms. Barocci said. ''We plan to serve it plain or just with fruit. It should speak for itself.''
Consumers interested in buying prosciutto from Parma should request it specifically, especially since some of the companies producing it for export, like Citterio and Fiorucci, also make prosciutto in this country. A five-pointed crown of the Duchy of Parma is stamped on each ham.