It was raining in Verona. The thick drops pinged on the top of my head in steady rhythm. They streaked down the stone walls in inky rivulets. There were no open restaurants or coffee shops to duck into. The houses rested in silence behind shuttered green windows, so I hid under the meager cover of a lintel. The dark effigies from the family grave across the alley offered no comfort. They didn’t care, they could not feel the chill of the rain. An enticing aroma emanated from the door behind me, the only indication of life I detected. Delicious dishes were being prepared somewhere within, the cold drops dribbled down the back of my neck and an intense longing to have a hot bowl of risotto hit me. As I stood sniffing the door, it opened from within and a shriveled woman wearing an overflowing flour-dusted apron appeared holding a pail.
“Signore aiutaci, bambina tu mi spaventò a morte! Che ci fai qui?” She came out and upended her bucket. Gray water splashed out onto the wet pavement and formed a runnel. “Ti sei perso? Guardati, completamente inzuppato dalla testa ai piedi, senza neppure un ombrello. Voi giovani, che cosa si può pensare?” My knowledge of Italian was limited so her words fell like a torrent upon me.
“Mi dispiace, parlo un poco italiano solo.”
“Inglese?” I nodded. She shook her head and said, “E, naturalmente, tu sei qui, quando non è aperto. Vieni dentro, vieni, vieni! Vieni a scaldarsi.”
I understood from the motions of her free hand that she was inviting me inside. “Vieni, vieni! Non tenere in piedi!” She led me towards the source of the mouth-watering odors.
The kitchen was noisy. Every female family member was in the room, cooking. They all stopped and stared at me. Strips of pale bandage hung like streamers from rods and hooks. The old lady guided me to a large stone hearth ablaze in light and heaped with logs. She pushed a stool in front of the fire and said, “Siediti.” “Molte grazie,” I replied. “Bene, bene,” she said, handing me a towel and then moved around the kitchen speaking to the others. “Ahh,” they all murmured and shook their heads and clucked their tongues and smiled at me. My presence explained, the kitchen went back to its regular routine leaving me to dry and warm myself in peace. The old woman bent over a circle of dough at the other end of a long central wooden table and sprinkled extra flour over it. She dipped her fingers in a bowl of water and shook them above the mound. For a moment I thought I was watching my grandmother again hunched over her work, the raw bread waiting for her hands to knead it into shape, her gnarled digits dripping droplets over it before flattening with her rolling-pin.
A head popped out from under the table and the moment dissolved. A child emerged, encased in white. “Monello malizioso! Che stai facendo? Comportati bene! Vai a sedere in silenzio laggiù,” said a woman who turned from her pot to catch him sneaking out. “E ‘mama pronto?” he asked her. “Calma, bambino, aspettare. Le buone cose richiedono tempo,” she answered. He sat down on a stool by the table and stared at me. The mother ladled some of the pot contents into two bowls, stuck a spoon in each, and set one down in front of the child. The other she handed to me. “Avere qualche. Sarà caldo il tuo stomaco e il tuo cuore,” she said as I took the bowl. “Molte grazie,” I said again. Wisps of steam issued from the short fat grains of rice glommed together. Thickly grated cheese covered the engorged kernels. Rich golden broth nestled in between the rice.
“This was the risotto I had been craving as I stood on the street.”
The youngster gazed at me from his perch through shoulder length wheat hair before holding his face above the plate and inhaling. I did the same. Butter and mushroom and parsley assailed my senses. We opened our eyes and looked at the creamy goodness in front of us. We picked up our spoons and began to eat.
“Abbiamo bisogno di musica,” grandmother said and began to hum a tune. The others in the kitchen joined her, some humming, some singing. Their voices weaved in and out of the powder filled air and set the streamers, which I realized were long pasta strings, swaying. As the warmth of the risotto spread through me I noticed a thrumming sound. I glanced to my left under the table. My companion was beating his heel against the metal rung of the stool. He stopped, his spoon halfway in his mouth and turned to me. He looked down at my leg and I followed his eye. My heel was also drumming against my stool, in rhythm to the song. We smiled at each other and returned to our risotto. Tiny peas burst in my mouth like bubbles. The grains of rice tasted like silk dipped in garlic, toasted onion, and rosemary. The salty grainy Padano bit into the velvety scene with perfect sharpness. My comrade and I ate in silence, our heels tap-tapping while the kitchen revolved its dance of pots and pasta around us.
I scraped the side of the bowl to catch every ribbon of broth and stray vialone nano. From the corner of my eye I could see the boy doing the same.
“How beautifully these little things connected us to each other, I thought, licking my spoon.”
Beyond the barriers of language there were characteristic human gestures we all shared: the motion of sprinkling water over unleavened dough, keeping tempo with feet to the music, disappearing in the comfort of a warm meal on a cold day. This person and I, without words, had become fast friends over a bowl of risotto. Sometimes, I realized, the best way to communicate was to have a meal together.
Veronese families like to make risotto using Vialone Nano rice rather than arborio or carnaroli. Vialone Nano is grown in the Veronese lowlands and has a rich texture because it is high in starch. To cook a classic Italian risotto follow the recipe here. For a traditional Veronese twist, try this recipe.