Today a tasty risotto can be easily found on menus across the globe ranging from a hearty dish at your favorite local bistro to an exquisite meal at a Michelin star restaurant in Italy. Unbeknownst to some, risotto is a rice dish that is cooked very slowly by gradually adding your choice of broth, usually chicken, among other spices and ingredients of choice. The final product is a rich, velvety sauce with soft but slightly al dente grains enjoyed alone or paired with other delicious delicacies. It is a staple in many Italian homes and popular in the Western world. But how did this rice dish loved by so many throughout the years come to be?
To understand the origins of risotto means to look at how rice was introduced in Italy. It is said that rice was brought by the Arabs in the Middle Ages and was immediately seen as a means to address the food shortages that villagers were experiencing during the famine years. Rice soon made its way to northern Italy because of the region’s ideal conditions to cultivate the crop, and it quickly became commonplace in their food culture. In fact, today Italy is still known as “Europe’s rice paddy” because of its extensive cultivation of fine rice. While the presence of rice in Italy’s history can be traced back to at least the 14th century, the origins of risotto is a little more complex.
The first official record of risotto dates back to the 1800s in Italy where the recipe for risotto alla milanese, or risotto with saffron, can be found in cookbooks. However, some Italians will argue that risotto is much older than that because of a very popular legend. Italian folklore traces risotto back to the 16th century when a master glassmaker’s daughter was preparing to get married. His assistant was said to love saffron so much so that he put it in everything, including to stain the glass windows of Milan’s Cathedral during his glassmaking work. At the daughter’s wedding, the assistant decided to prepare a rice dish with lots of saffron. Much to everyone’s surprise, the people absolutely loved the dish—and so risotto began, or so the story goes!
Throughout the years, risotto has evolved from the popular risotto alla Milanese, with butter, beef marrow, broth, saffron and cheese, to hundreds of variations that pair risotto with ingredients like olive oil, mushroom, crab, and squid ink. In spite of its debatable past in Italy, risotto is very much still a part of Italy’s present, cooked in homes and restaurants across the country.
Indeed, risotto is as much Italian as pasta.