An Italian seduction – the story of Italy’s national dish

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Pasta is clearly part of Italian cuisine. Less known, however, is how much the Italians love rice. Did you know that our southern neighbors eat substantially more of it than we do? Annual per capita consumption in Italy is 10.3 kg and thereby significantly higher than in Germany, currently at 7.1 kg. So what ties rice and Italy together? It’s quite simple: Italy is Europe’s biggest rice producer. It has been grown there since the 15th century, especially in the north of the country, since the climactic conditions there are significantly better for rice cultivation. No wonder then that risotto is one of the national dishes alongside pasta and Pizza.

Risotto tradizionale or a bit more newfangled?

The variety of ways to prepare the mash are many and varied. Depending on region and season, different recipes are preferred. No boundaries are placed on creativity and taste. Typical of all the recipes is that medium grain rice is sautéed with onion and fat and cooked in broth until creamy, but with the rice remaining firm to the bite (al dente). Depending on recipe, veggies, mushrooms, seafood, meat, spices, parmesan and wine are added. In the north of Italy they say that risotto must be “all’onda”, and flow like a wave across the plate.

The menu steps are as follows:

Just like pasta, risotto in Italy is generally served as a carbohydrate-rich main course (primo piatto). A second, protein-rich main course (secondo piatto) follows in the form of fish or meat and then usually dessert (dolci). Portions are therefore not excessive so as to leave space for the subsequent dishes. Someone who is very hungry should thus not just order a risotto. Meals are usually concluded with an Espresso.

Rice is not rice

It does indeed matter which rice is used to make risotto, since the desired creaminess can only be achieved with the types Arborio, Carnaroli, Maratelli and Vialone. Broken rice and long-grain rice are less suited when prepared al dente because they do not release enough starch for the creamy consistency.

The pot makes the risotto

For best rice results the selection of the pot must not be underestimated: Pros use special risotto pots, which are deep and round. The extra thick pot base ensures optimum heat distribution and facilitates stirring, of particular importance so that nothing burns. Risotto pots, incidentally, are also well suited as stewpots. If you run out of risotto rice, you can prepare all kinds of veggie and meat dishes.

So who invented it?

There are competing legends about the origins of Risotto Milanese. According to one of them, they can be traced back to Venetian Jews, who prepared the dish during fasting periods.

Two other persistent myths draw an association with the construction of the Milan Cathedral: Proponents of the first story are firmly convinced that this Milanese-style rice is owed to a prank played by a stained-glass artist’s assistant. In order to rile his boss he mixed some of the powder used to stain the glass of the church windows into his food. In those days it was normal to tint the paint for church and cathedral glass with the costly spice. But instead of getting angry the man was thrilled; his risotto tasted better than ever with saffron sprinkled in. Word of the delicious effect of the “magical ingredient” quickly spread, and “Risotto Milanese”, the most colorful and famous variety of the rice dish, was soon Born.

According to the second legend the world-famous Risotto Milanese was not invented by a Milanese, but rather by compatriot from the south. The stone mason Alvora was from the region of Abruzzo but ended up in Milan for the construction of the Milan cathedral. He was not only very homesick, but also missed his mother and her home cooking. He tried to remedy this by spicing up the, to his taste, bland Milanese rice dish with saffron from his native region. An Italian national dish was soon Born.

Yet neither of these attempts at clarification have ever been historically documented. But they make a nice anecdote for your next risotto meal: Buon appetito!

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