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Of Rice and Risotto

risotto-veggiesIt 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.

risotto-plateThe 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.

risotto-closeup“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.


TRAVEL NOTE:

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.

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103 replies »

  1. A great piece on risotto. Now, can you give us Italian pastries? I wandered into an Italian bakery in San Francisco a few years ago, run by elderly Italian immigrants, and have wanted to do a pastry tour of Italy ever since. There was something unique about the pastries that I’ve never been able to figure out. But they sure were good.

    • Italian pastry tour? You should absolutely do that and if you are in Florence be sure to try the gelato at Vivoli! As for the recipes, we tried to weasel one for sfogliatella out of a pastry chef, but he smiled and said it was his secret. We think part of the secret is that they tend to use fresh, natural ingredients and make their products in small batches. Good luck with planning the tour.

  2. When I visited Italy I discovered Risotto ai Fruitti di Mare… and that is all I ordered everywhere we went! I’ve tried ordering it at Italian restaurants in the US but it doesn’t come close! You are right that the rice in Italy is like silk…

  3. A favorite dish that I have yet to master. Perhaps a trip to Verona is in order. The photos are mouth watering. This delicious tale brings to mind the old move “Like Water For Chocolate” in its depiction of food and its emotional connection. I love Italy as well.

  4. Beautiful story, Atreyee. I was right there with you in that kitchen, sensing and tasting. The last risotto I had in Florence was a delicious mixture of mushrooms and wild boar, but I don’t know if it was crafted from arborio or carnaroli rice. Next time I’ll pay closer attention. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed – your writing is a joy. All the best, Terri

  5. Growing up in with an Italian family…reading this reminded me of all the Aunt’s and Grandma’s always in the kitchen. Wonderful piece 🙂

  6. Yes, I always believe that eating together is the easiest way to befriend a person. And yes I cannot agree more how human emotions and subtle facial and physical gestures are far more telling and truthful than spoken words. You are right in suggesting that sometimes spoken words can become a barrier…it can happen in more ways than one. Loved your little story and the pictures. The Risotto and veggies look delish! Thanks for sharing.

  7. “Sometimes, I realized, the best way to communicate was to have a meal together.” Well-stated.
    Like Randall, I like how your piece contrasts the hardship of being trapped outdoors on a soggy day, with the warmth of strangers and a beautiful bowl of risotto.

    We’ve just returned from Northern Italy ourselves, where we enjoyed our fair share of risotto, my favorite being a lightly sweet version featuring delicate strawberries. Up until that visit, I’d not heard of Carnaroli rice being used for risotto (only Arborio), and now you’ve introduced me to Vialone Nano as well. We have it on our wish list to return to Piemonte someday soon, so we can visit the region’s rice fields.

    • A sweet risotto? I have never had that before and now want to find this risotto with strawberries you mention! Before my trip to northern Italy I had never thought of the country as a rice-producer. After trying both Carnaroli and Vialone Nano (and being told that each was superior to the other), I had a much better appreciation for how serious Italian rice-growers are about their particular grains.

  8. Reading this post was like being embraced in the best food haze hug ever. It was enveloping from the first sentence. You involved all my senses–I swear I could taste what you were tasting too.
    It was a beautiful piece, B – I think my favorite of yours thus far.
    I want the recipe for the scallop, carrot, and pea risotto. It looks like the food of the gods.

    • 😍 Grazie mille! Risotto as the food of the gods…I had not thought of it that way. Next time I eat risotto I shall be feeling even luckier. As for the recipe: Thinly slice two medium carrots and set aside a 1/2 cup of green peas. Follow directions for making standard risotto in broth, then remove from heat. Add in the carrot slices and the peas and stir gently into the cooked rice. Cover and keep warm over low heat. For the scallops, remove their side muscles (if there is any attached), rinse and pat dry. Season them with salt and pepper. In a skillet over high heat, add olive oil and a dab of butter. Once the oil begins to smoke, place the scallops in the skillet. Sear each side of the scallops for 1.5 minutes (or until there is a visible golden crust). Plate with the risotto. Bon appétit!

  9. What a wonderful story! I could feel the warmth of the gesture and the room. Isn’t travel an amazing thing when the kindness of strangers supersedes the barrier of language?

  10. Great opening ~ kind of like standing out in the miserable weather, feeling hungry and a bit cold and then suddenly being swept into a lively restaurant with great food by communicating only with a smile…not sure there are too many better feelings.

  11. Since I started learning Italian (yeah yeah I know *in the first place learn English properly* sounds in my head too) this post is very interesting for me though the phrase “Mi dispiace, parlo un poco italiano.” is the only one I understood 🙂 I don’t know why but today I had a dream where my former English teacher told me to learn French. If she had told this in Italian, my brain would have burst into small pieces.

    • 😆 We would never say such a thing to you Marta. We do, however, congratulate you on attempting to learn multiple languages at the same time! Learning the cyrillic alphabet before trying to learn a few Russian phrases was a daunting task for us. Ciao.

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