Risotto: an Italian speciality

If there is one dish for which Italy can claim sole and complete credit, without fear of cavil or contradiction, it’s risotto. And that’s despite the fact that rice-growing is anything but an ancient practice here – it really only took off in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Cavour Canal was dug in Piedmont to irrigate Novara, Vercelli, all the way to Lomellina. And it’s despite the fact that the most popular varieties of rice, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, are not autochthonous but hybrids, dating back only to the 1930s or ‘40s.

But most importantly, what is risotto? It’s defined by two fundamental, indispensable parts of the recipe, without which we would have some sort of rice soup, but certainly not a risotto. These stages are: 1) toasting and 2) mantecatura, which refers to the final stages of the rice absorbing liquid. Both these processes are hotly debated, but they are both at the heart of risotto-making. It’s worth remembering that there is no such thing as absolute truth in the kitchen: just technical habits and preferences of the individual palate.

In the late 1800s, the only way to cook rice was to boil it. Rice used to be thought of as having medicinal properties, and in Italy we still talk about “white menus” for those who have fallen sick. Later, people began to explore the potential of this white cereal, first by toasting it in some sort of fat, on a base of fried onions, and then by cooking it in stock, before tossing in a bit of butter or cheese to add that extra something to the consistency.
Thus the famous Mantuan dish Riso alla Pilotta, which does not involve either that first or that final stage, is decidedly not a risotto, however far the definition of risotto can be stretched. Riso in Cagnone is another example of what a risotto is not: rice boiled in water and then transferred to a pan of butter. The traditional risotto recipe also requires a splash of wine, but in this day and age the cook can take it or leave it.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the late Gualtiero Marchesi, a chef who always knew where to tread the line between the old and the new. His take on the risotto involved a subtle but powerful tweak: toasting the rice dry, cooking it in water, and then adding in sour butter, followed by any sort of seasoning he chose. The sour butter, or a good vinegar, makes for an improvement on the traditional splash of wine, and deglazes the pan too.

And now it’s over to your imagination. Happy risotto, everyone!

[Photos and recipe by the author]

Rice, as a general rule, must be lightly cooked, and when it is dry, it must be heaped on the tray in which you serve it. Always accompany it with grated Parmesan cheese [...]
[Pellegrino Artusi, Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well, 1891]