In the vast and varied repertory of Italian cuisine, one dish stands above all others for its versatility and humble beginnings (in my Italian eyes at least). Risotto is the quintessential fare of la cucina povera, or the poor man’s meal. All you really need is rice and some sort of liquid and together they make a warm, creamy dish that can satisfy the emptiest of bellies.
I am a risotto snob. I have eaten risotto, great risotto, all my life. I watched my grandmother Piera at the kitchen stove, juggling pans of homemade broth and a large, old, dented stockpot that she only used to cook risotto. My most vivid memories are of her strong arms stirring the rice with a long wooden spoon. She would stand by the stove vigorously mixing for what seemed like hour-long minutes, the action solely interrupted by the pouring of chicken broth and a quick taste from the spoon, before she returned to her task of stirring. By her facial expression alone, I could tell whether my cousins and I were close to sitting down at the dinner table or if we had an extra 30 minutes of playtime. Still, often it was all I could do to avoid staring at her, admiring the passion and focus she applied to making what she knew was my favorite dish.
There are disparate theories as to how rice got to Northern Italy (the consensus seems to be that it was brought to the plains near Milan from Naples), but once there, it took hold in people’s daily and regional cuisine. What my grandmother prepared was risotto alla Milanese, the version of risotto that is identified with the region of Northern Italy where I was born, near Milano. It’s risotto cooked with saffron and finished with a dollop of butter and scoopfuls of Parmesan cheese. (This traditional recipe has morphed into several related iterations, such as risotto with Porcini mushrooms and saffron, with sausage and peas, etc.).
Not all types of rice will make a good risotto. Arborio rice, a short-grain white rice rich in starch and with an Italian pedigree, is the preferred and most commonly used type in kitchens around the world. A high-starch content is what gives risotto its creaminess and the secret to a creamy risotto is the addition of liquid in small batches. The starch naturally contained in rice will reduce liquids into some form of a sauce, little by little—hence the stirring. If you leave the rice unstirred for a period of time, you’ll get a doughy concoction or a burned bottom of the pan. (I have learned the hard way in both cases.) Getting the rice to the right consistency is the most difficult and labor intensive task. If the rice bubbles up and is coating the pan with a layer of starch, the risotto is in perfect condition.
Although you could add pretty much any ingredient to the dish, risotto always starts the same way: a soffritto of onion or garlic cooked in extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes, or until translucent. The rice is then added and cooked, or roasted, until it is coated with the onion/garlic mush. It is at this point that the liquid is added. Vegetable or chicken broths are most commonly used to release the starch, and depending on the preferred recipe, fruit juices can add a whimsical and unexpected element to the dish. Risotto with squid ink, which turns rice black and has a distinctive fishy flavor, is the ultimate radical approach for this simple dish—and is quite tasty.
If you ask any Milanese, she will tell you that the best risotto recipe belongs to someone in her family. In mine, it belongs to my aunt Rosanna. Her risotto with pears is extraordinarily delicate: a velvety rice cream with melt-in-your-mouth pear bits and an aftertaste of orange juice, which she uses to caramelize the fruit and rice grains before pouring the broth.
Charlottesville has some impressive versions of risotto, either as a side or a main dish, to satisfy discerning palates—even mine.
Fleurie’s red wine risotto is served to complement pan-roasted beef tenderloin, something to try if you haven’t. Fruit juices elevate the flavor profile of a simple and humble risotto to the levels of haute French cuisine.
Tavola offers a beet-leek risotto as a bed for its mouthwatering capesante ai ferri, pan-roasted sea scallops—the perfect sweet and savory combination.
Caffe Bocce’s scallops and risotto is a refreshing dish for the summer.
Still, if you want to try cooking risotto at home, don’t be deterred by the time commitment. From mise en place to final product, you can expect to spend no less than 25 minutes at the stove; if you want extra creamy risotto, make that 45. But using a pressure cooker, like I do, will cut that time in half. Although frowned upon by purists (sorry, Grandma!), a pressure cooker is an effective alternative to the stovetop method. Just add all the ingredients, seal the pot, and wait 15 minutes.