Risotto 1: Il Classico Risotto di Milanese

It was a cold and overcast day In Milan today that turned into a chilly and rainy evening. This was no warm early autumn rain, either, but an icy rain that stung when it hit my skin with no hint of the very recent summer. This was an early winter rain that foretold of snow and sleet and weather blowing down from the nearby mountains. I now understand why everyone here wears scarves, and I wish I had packed one of my own.

I found solace in a familiar place as I returned to Daniele and the Bella Riva cafe on the canal, the site of my first meal in Milan (and a few more after that). They offer two varieties of risotto - Il Classico Risotto di Milanese and Risotto with mushrooms. The Milanese risotto sounded more authentic to me, so I chose that with a glass of red wine that I left to Daniele's discretion. And as my last visit to Milan spoiled me to baklava, tiramisu and canoli, I am now spoiled to risotto. Tonight I have had the real thing.

I have often wondered at the appeal of risotto. It has always struck me as improperly cooked rice, including the risotto from the Legg Mason cafeteria which serves the international banking sector. When I prepare rice in such a manner I usually get the business, yet it is considered some kind of fancy dish when it comes out of the right kitchen. Now I understand. This risotto was something completely different. The rice was firm and chewy but did not feel underdone. The starch from the rice did not permeate the sauce it was cooked in and there was no hint of the pastiness that has plagued my risotto experiences in the past. This is not rice at all but a different grain altogether. Denser and heavier than rice, this felt closer to barley but still had the mild flavor of rice. It felt more like fiber than starch and had enough backbone to convince me that it was a meal unto itself despite the absence of meat or veg. And, while I did not know this at the time, I would wake up the following day still satisfied from this meal and not quite ready for breakfast until well into the morning.

And the sauce was exceptional. It had a warm flavor - if warm were a flavor, it would taste like this sauce - warm and golden and rich but not heavy. If the grain was dense, the sauce was a perfect juxtaposition of light sunshine. It didn't taste like anything I have ever had before, yet there was something familiar about it that I could not quite place. It reminded me of my mother's chicken noodle soup, but did not taste like chicken. I thought it might be saffron at first. About half-way through, it occurred to me that it might be tumeric, a seasoning that is used in some chicken boullion. This would also explain the golden yellow color. It was definintely not something I get at home, though. There was also that buttery creaminess reminiscent of the strangozzi I had the last visit that is supposedly olive oil. I never quite believe this becasue American olive oil is so heavy and bitter and pungent and this oil tastes and feels and smells the exact opposite. If this is olive oil, I want some of it. I believe there was also a hint of cream, but not much.

It was crowned with a pile of grated hard cheese in the center of the dish. As I made my way around the edges and worked my way to the middle, the cheese melted completely which made for a remarkable finish.

In retrospect, I would have selected a dry white wine to go with this dish rather than the tangy red Daniele picked. The wine he selected was similiar to what I was ordering two weeks ago, and kudos to him for remembering my tastes. I don't think it complemented this dish the way a crisp, dry white might have.

Overall, though, it was a satisfying end to a dreary and challenging day.

UPDATE: I did a little research this morning, and last night's risotto was most likely seasoned with veal marrow and saffron.

Bella Riva Cafe

Il Classico Risotto di Milanese