When you think of Italian food, risotto is probably not the first thing that pops into your mind, right? Well, it turns out that many locals in Italy highly value this creamy rice delicacy, and even prefer it over the globally more renowned and loved pizza or pasta. Here at Wise Guys we serve a mouthwatering Seared Scallop & Wild Mushroom Risotto, but we became intrigued when we read that in many corners of Italy it’s considered their most important dish. That caught our attention so we decided to take a deep dive into the culinary history of risotto.
What is Risotto?
The risotto technique is a method of cooking certain varieties of Italian rice whose kernels are coated by a soft starch known as amylopectin. When prepared appropriately, the starch on these types of rice dissolve, bringing the kernels together and fusing them with other ingredients in the dish. The end result is creamy risotto.
The History of Risotto
How did rice, the staple of Asia, end up some 4,700 miles away, in wheat-focused Italy?
It was due to the Silk Road trade when Arab traders brought rice from Asia to the Middle East. Brought by the Moors and Saracens after they settled in Europe, rice was first introduced in Italy, precisely in Sicily, as early as the 13th century. From there it spread to the Naples area and later, due to the connections between the Aragona of Naples and the Sforza of Milan, to the Po valley in northern Italy. Here it found the ideal conditions to be grown: flat lands, abundance of water, and humidity. Still today, the Po Valley is one of the largest rice producers in Europe and rice is eaten extensively throughout northern Italy.
In northern Italy, in the fifteenth century, the Lombardy plains were cleared to establish rice fields. The motivation for the clearing and reclaiming of the plains was simply the demands of the growing towns for food. The demand was met by budding capitalists who had the financial wherewithal to back the farmers in establishing these rice fields in the Po Valley. One of the earliest references concerning rice in northern Italy is a letter of September 27, 1475, from Galeazzo Maria Sforza to the Duke of Ferraira concerning twelve sacks of rice.
In the days of the Venetian Republic, la Serenissima, as the city state was known by both its citizens and enemies, would spare nothing to properly regale the ambassadors to St. Marks with all the pomp and splendor befitting such a noble position. The state banquet was a notable event, and the master chefs of the Doge (palace) would prepare an exquisite minestra di riso that centuries later evolved into the risotto we know today.
In both the Po Valley and in Valencia in Spain, rice occasionally replaced bread as a staple. It is a typical part of the story that profit margins were kept high as riziculture (rice cultivation) in Lombardy meant the near enslavement of workers who were not organized. This included children who were exposed to barbarous cruelties according to a Lombard ordinance of 1590 seeking to stop this practice.
Rice was known in Roman times but only medicinally, and was not grown in a regular or widespread way in the Mediterranean until the rise of Islam. Riziculture had its origins in India, Assam, Buruma, Thailand, and China and the plant slowly made its way west both agriculturally and culinarily. Rice was cooked pilaf style in Muslim countries and in India, meaning it was light and fluffy with separate grains. However, in northern Italy it was cooked in a manner similar to the way other grains were already cooked, namely as a kind of porridge, aka risotto.
The fourteenth century cookery manuscript known as the Libro per Cuoco (by an anonymous Venetian) gives a recipe known as riso in bona manera. It was a kind of porridge of rice cooked in almond milk with sugar. In Italy, a person who laughed easily was said to have eaten rice soup, a play on words: che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso (he has eaten laughter/rice soup).
Rice cultivation eventually reached Milan in the north, where the conditions were great for growing short grain rice. The popularity of rice grew throughout Italy, primarily among the wealthy at first, since the “new” food was sold for exorbitant prices. And once the outside world discovered the quality of short grain Italian rice, the money poured in, and more and more rice was planted. As it became more widely available and the price came down, the availability of the short grains spread making the rice far more accessible.
From its early use, rice has evolved into a culinary tradition that has come to include the very fine risotto. One of the most famous risotto dishes is no doubt risotto alla Milanese. The first recipe mentioning the dish appears in cookbooks starting in the 1800s. That would appear to contradict the legend that attributes the origin of this famous dish to a joke: it is said that on September 8, 1574, the daughter of master glassmaker Valerio of Flanders was to be married to her father’s assistant, whom Valerio had nicknamed “Zafferano” (saffron) because the young man liked the ingredient so much he put it everywhere, and even to stain the glass gold of Milan’s Cathedral. On the day of his wedding, Valerio’s team of glass-makers snuck into the kitchen, perhaps to sneak a few free bites of food, but also to play a joke on “Zafferano.” This is where magic happened. Valerio’s glass makers poured an unlikely ingredient into the wedding guest’s meal of rice with butter: a big heaping spoonful of saffron, the ingredient “Zafferano” used to stain glass a vibrant yellow. When the bright yellow rice was served at the wedding the guests were baffled. Some tasted it out of curiosity, and it didn’t take long until the whole room was buzzing with excitement for its deliciousness. While the story is certainly quaint, there is no mention of this dish before the 1800s.
From the 13th to the late 17th centuries rice was only cooked in boiling water. The first change took place in 1779 when rice was, for the first time, sauteed in a little butter and wet with broth. Later, a pinch of chopped onion was added.
The first cookbook recipe identifiable as risotto dates from 1809, Riso Gallo in Padella. The rice was sauteed in butter; sausage, onions, and saffron were gradually added.
The Birth of Modern Risotto
A bit later in Milan, the most famous risotto dish, Risotto alla Milanese, was created. It was suffused with saffron, like paella.
The year was 1829 and the name Risotto alla Milanese appears for the first time in the recipe book Nuovo Cuoco Milanese Economico. For the first time, the rice was not boiled, but cooked with butter and broth that was gradually poured and enriched with beef bone marrow and cervellata (sausage stuffed with cheese, beef, and veal meats) and saffron. Why saffron? The region had been under Spanish rule for almost two centuries and rice dishes, including paella, had become staples in Milan. The slow cooking principles of paella were combined with the local, starchy, short grain rice and an unknown chef created Risotto alla Milanese with rice, chicken stock, saffron, onions, butter, wine, parmesan, and flat leaf parsley.
In 1839, Padre Calleri, a missionary in the Philippines, smuggled home some varieties of rice and new hybrids were developed in Italy. Among those, the short grained carnaroli and arborio were perfect for risotto rice – softened in fat (preferably butter) and cooked with the gradual addition of broth, water, or wine. When the rice has completely absorbed the liquid and taken on a creamy consistency the risotto is ready.
Today, rice only appears in the southern Italian diet in dishes such as the arancini of Sicily (the fried balls of rice and ragu beloved by caterers everywhere) and the tialla of Puglia (a baked vegetable rice casserole) while in the north risotto has deep roots.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Fascist regime attempted to impose risotto as a national dish and a national rice board was set up to promote consumption. Recipe books were published with titles like Eat Rice and Rice is Health, and rice became a fixture in school canteens and mess halls.
Autarky, or self-sufficiency, was the goal but the campaign was ideological as well as economic. Today it’s hard to imagine a pasta-less Italy, but at the time pasta was regarded as the main culprit for what the government described as the “sluggishness, pessimism, passivity, and neutralism” of the Italian race. In 1931, il Manifesto della Cucina Futurista called for the abolition of pasta which was unsuited, they said, to the speed and dynamism of modern living. All these ideas fell by the wayside along with the Fascist regime.
Risotto is famous for its versatility and the ease with which it assimilates all sorts of ingredients. (In the old Milanese dialect, risotto means “hotchpotch” or “jumble” by the way.) The classics are risotto alla Milanese, risotto ai funghi with dried or fresh mushrooms, and risotto with seafood.
Modern Risotto Milanese
Risotto became a favorite way to use short grained rice in Italy, particularly northern Italy. Today the dish is served extensively almost unchanged, in the kitchens and restaurants of the world.
Combinations as varied as duck, game, pumpkin, sausage, snails, squid ink, truffles, and almost everything else are paired with this classic dish.
While aiborio, carnaroli, and vialone nano rices still rule, chefs have used red rice, black rice, and other varieties to create risotto dishes.
Risotto is such a popular dish that a whole festival is organized in its honor. The Festival Nazionale del Risotto takes place in Biella, Italy, every year.
A Bit of Inside Information
If you’re ever traveling in the Lombard-Piedmont area of northern Italy featuring Lombardy’s sparkling lakes and Piedmont’s towering Alps, think about boating on Lake Como in the morning then skiing in Sestriere in the afternoon. Later, go have a glass of Barolo, the pride of Piedmont, with your evening meal which is sure to include risotto, because you are in the heart of risotto country.
In the lovely, leafy town of Vercelli, halfway between Milan and Turin, there is the Christian & Manuel Ristorante. It is a gastronomic jewel, a one-star Michelin restaurant, but their specialty is risotto. The brothers Christian and Manuel Costardi have made more than 100 recipes. On any given day there are at least 25 risotto dishes. In an interview, Christian said, “You can eat pasta and pizza all around the world. But it’s difficult to eat a good risotto outside of Italy. It’s a dish representative of a nation now.”
Yes and No.
The risotto at Christian and Manuel’s is otherworldly (we can attest to that) but I am sure the chefs have not dined at Wise Guys or their opinion of “risotto outside of Italy” would be different. We pride ourselves on having the best risotto on Hilton Head Island and the surrounding Lowcountry, prepared in the traditional Italian way. Hope you enjoyed our peek into a dish that mixes history and legend and is famous throughout the world. Hope to see you soon.