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A taste of Italy

September 28, 1999

Seafood RisottoBy KATHRYN MATTHEWS / For AP Special Features

photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS




NEW YORK - Risotto, the tasty Italian specialty increasingly found on restaurant menus, Italian or otherwise, inspires ardent devotion in its addicts.

Can rice really incite passion? Apparently, yes.

[cont. from lifestyle]

"Risotto requires passion, precisely because it is not a dish that comes out in five or 10 minutes," says Luca Marcato, chef-owner of Luca, a Manhattan restaurant.

Risotto is a traditional northern Italian staple made by combining a short-grain, highly glutinous rice, such as Arborio, with wine, broth and a few other choice ingredients. It is labor-intensive, requiring about 25 minutes of the cook's undivided attention plus the upper-arm strength of a Sumo wrestler.

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But the end result, a rich, refined, creamy yet slightly chewy rice dish, an amalgam of aromatic flavors and textures, rates high both as a culinary achievement and as a favorite comfort food.

According to Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman, authors of "Risotto" (Macmillan, 1987), the exact origins of risotto escape food historians, but legend has it that the first risotto made its debut in Milan around 1574.

It was hailed as "Risus optimus" (Latin for "excellent rice"). To this day, Milan is known for its risotto alla milanese, the saffron-based version that is a traditional accompaniment to osso buco (braised veal shanks).

Arborio rice, a "superfino" rice, is the most commonly available Italian rice and very usable for risottos, says Micol Negrin, culinary director of Italian Culinary Center in Manhattan and editor of La Cucina Italiana magazine.

Specialists assert that pricey Carnaroli, a heavy, highly polished grain considered the aristocrat of Italian rice, yields an exceptionally creamy risotto. Other chefs prefer Vialone Nano, maintaining that this stubby, egg-shaped grain holds its shape well during cooking because of its high starch content.

Risotto has come a long way since it first began cropping up on Italian restaurant menus in this country in the mid-1980s. For one thing, more diners are well-traveled and know how a good risotto should taste.

When New York City-based chef-consultant Gianni Scappin was a young chef at Manhattan's Castellano (among one of the first Italian restaurants to put risotto on the menu in 1985), he recalls how "faux" risottos began popping up around town.

"Some restaurants would blend regular long-grain rice or Uncle Ben's with a lot of cream and butter, then call it 'risotto,' and people who ate it didn't know any better."

Some chefs use widely diverse ingredients ranging from strawberries and radicchio to rabbit in their risottos. But most chefs offer variations on traditional risottos. And with good reason: Risotto is a time-consuming dish, even when it's partially cooked in advance. Chefs are conscious of which flavor combinations sell and which don't.

Scappin, who has opened restaurants across the country, reports that wild mushroom, lobster and seafood risottos are predictable bestsellers.

"At Luca's, we avoid hectic flavors customers may not understand. I'll do a lobster risotto, a porcini risotto, a squid ink risotto - every once in a while, I'll make a smoked mozzarella and prosecco wine risotto," Marcato says. He will do "a new interpretation on a traditional style, but nothing crazy."

Make it at home

Another sign of risotto's popularity is that more people want to learn to make it at home. Achieving the silken, fluid texture of a perfect risotto is no easy task for home cooks, even seasoned ones.

"From shopping for the proper rice to cooking risotto, making risotto is definitely more art than science," Scappin says. He is co-author of the forthcoming "Cucina & Famiglia" (Morrow) along with Joan Tropiano Tucci, whose son Stanley Tucci (of "Big Night" movie fame) also contributes to the book.

"Risotto is not just a rice dish, it's a way of cooking rice which is very specific, typically to northern Italy. It's a gradual kind of cooking where you add broth, little by little, to the rice, and it requires skill because you have to be able to look at what's happening to the rice when it's in the pan," says Negrin, who has observed at the culinary center's risotto demonstrations that "people are intimidated by making it."

But Marcato offers reassurance. "You get better every time you make risotto because, over time, you develop a feeling for it."

The key to uniformly cooked risotto is stirring with a wooden spoon. Shortcuts via oven or microwave are unanimously frowned upon.

"Stirring is important in distributing the liquid, so that the rice doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. ... Risotto lacks soul if you cook it in a microwave - you're away from it, you're removed, you don't see what's happening," Negrin says.

"And the most pleasurable aspect of making risotto comes from seeing the change the rice goes through as you add the broth to cook it."

Marcato agrees. "Risotto cooks on the stovetop and you have to be able to see it while it cooks. If you put risotto in the oven, that's not risotto to me, that's rice pilaf!"

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