International Day of Italian Cuisines

Gourmet comfort food: a dictionary

What is important to know about risotto alla Milanese according some prestigious food writers and gastronomers.


A full-scale preoccupation for C.E.Gadda: “Butter, quantum prodest”, “quantum sufficit, no more, I beg you; it should not be a dip or a dirty sauce: It should just coat each and every grain; it should not drown them out”.


“The broth you use for risotto is not stock”, reminds us Craig Camp and it’s good to clarify this for the non-Italians. Rightly Camp specifies that “a stock is made by simmering meat or fish with bones and vegetables, then the resulting liquid is strained and often reduced to concentrate flavours. An Italian broth is often the by-product of making a main dish like Il Lesso da Brodo, a boiled beef main course that creates a wonderful broth”. He’s quite in agreement with Gadda’s prescriptions: “For the broth, boil beef with carrot and celery”. Ideal, for the great Italian writer, was that all three came from the Po Plain and that the bull was not “aged, spirited or Balkan of horns”. Some authors let a broth of beef and chicken pass, but the purists don’t admit it, and soup cubes are absolutely not admissible.

CERVELLATO (or Cervellata or Scervellata)

In Felice Luraschi’s recipe, this was a cold cut consisting of pancetta and pork brain, fat (often kidney fat), ox marrow, spices, among others, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and saffron together with grated Parmigiano Reggiano. All this was mixed and stuffed into gut once “dyed in saffron water”, as explained by Vincenzo Corrado in “Il Cuoco Galante” (1773). Roberta Schira maintains that “as the years passed, cervellato disappeared and was replaced by beef marrow, which had been an ingredient of the former, or by gras de rost”. (see below)



The presence of onion is an absolute must, according to food writer Roberta Schira. The onion is slowly brought to translucence without being coloured, suggests Anna Gosetti della Salda who also recomends to discard it eventually, when its essence has already been transferred to the butter. Gualtiero Marchesi in his recipe of Rice, gold and saffron says that the onion should be made “to sweat” in the butter and then strained. “It’s impossible to stew the onion and at the same time sauté the rice a rigueur”, observes Eugenio Medagliani. He adds: “In order to maintain the onion the rice can only be stewed”. So, “if we wanted to toast the rice, as should be done, the onion would only take on colour;… the solution can be found by cooking the two contenders separately using the most adequate method for each one”.


Gadda warns: “Risotto alla milanese must not be over-cooked, no, not at all! It should be served just a little more than al dente... the grains still individuals, not stuck to their companions, not softened into a slime, into a soup that could prove to be unpleasant.” The perfect point of cooking is, continuing with Gadda, reached in “twenty, twenty two minutes”. The way to stir is of fundamental importance. Some do it clockwise and others not, there are yet others who suggest that there’s even a biodynamic way of doing it. It certainly has to be done well, as Anna Gosetti della Salda suggests, but with gentleness, with a hollowed out cooking spoon (mestola bucata): “however, even if it sticks a little to the casserole you don’t have to worry considering that gourmets maintain that a truly good risotto el g'ha de savè de tàcaa giò (it must stick to the pan)”. But then there are yet others who are against stirring such as the chef-producer, Gabriele Ferron, from the Isola della Scala.


In Milan, risotto is traditionally eaten with a spoon. This is the manner recommended in the discipline of the Communal Denomination. Anna Gosetti also recommends serving it by pouring it “into a sizable dish and serving it with the rest of the cheese aside”.


The cheese traditionally used in the preparation of risotto alla milanese was Tipico Lodigiano, known as “il grana con la goccia” – “the grana with the drop,” because of the “tears” of serum that remain ever after months of aging. After having risked extinction, now it is produced in small quantity. But Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano do work very well. In his times, Gadda remembers that the sober (and elegant) Milanese allowed the use of only a little bit of grated Parmigiano.


The “gras de rost,” in Milanese dialect, are the pan dripping of a roast; this ingredient was found in all the bourgeois homes at the turn of the XX century as Roberta Schira remembers, when quoting Ottorina Perna Bozzi, the expert in Lombard and Milanese culture.


mestola con buco

Eugenio Medagliani, the mythical Milanese “calderaro umanista”, humanist potmaker, describes it as follows: “A sort of piece of wood used to mix the food in a pan and that is inappropriately named a wooden spoon. The handle is of a flat shape in order that it can be held comfortably yet firmly; the other end is wider and slimmer in order to be able to unstick the food from the corner of the cooking vessel. The invention of the hollowed out cooking spoon was born of the need of facilitating the mixing of the ingredients, used in the production of pastes, creams and also creamy risotto alla milanese”.


According to the criteria of the Communal Denomination (De.Co.), “risotto should be rather liquid (“all’onda”), with the grains still clearly separate yet held together as a creamy whole.” The "onda" is also the reason why risotto can so easily be overcooked. Therefore, it’s recommended to make no more than seven or eight portions at a time. When the old Milanese trattorie expected a large number of guests, the risotto was prepared in various casseroles, each one started some minutes after the previous one; what was not served was set aside for making risotto al salto.



In the 14th century, in Italy rice was extensively cultivated only in the region around Naples. It had been introduced by the Spaniards, who had received it from the Arabs, by the crusaders or by Venetian merchants. Thanks to the close relationship between the Aragonese and the Visconti and Sforza families, the cultivation of rice was extended to a part of the Po Plain that belonged to the State of Milan, particularly in the area of Vercelli. Up until the 16th century rice was considered to be almost medicinal, but then in 50 years, the number of rice fields on the Po Plain went from 5.000 to 50.000 according to a Spanish census.



Which rice for risotto? Without any doubt, quality rice! Gadda has no doubts about it: “Large-grained Vialone, shorter and plumier than the Carolina grain”, but Carnaroli also works well as does quality Arborio (“not the one in the supermarket”, warns chef and food writer Marino Marini, “the one in my market”). “Never parboiled”, we are warned by Roberta Schira, “because the free starches contained in this make it impossible to perform a perfect mantecatura”, as is called the last stage of the preparation, which consists of removing the risotto from the heat, leaving it to repose for two minutes and of stirring in the final butter or olive oil and the cheese. But whichever rice it be, Gadda finishes by informing us that it should not be “entirely deprived of its pericarp.”



The word goes to Medagliani once again: “The risottiera is that tinned copper vessel that the Milanese have traditionally used for cooking risotto all'onda (minestra) for centuries... (like the old one in the photo). The brim of the risottiera opens toward the top so that it is easier to stir with a wooden cooking spoon. The semicircular wrought-iron handle is riveted to the top of the vessel. It has an extremity divided into the two sides of a spout in the shape of an up-side-down U, which allows the risotto to be poured directly into the serving dish”.

risotto al salto


Technically, risotto al salto is a variation of risotto alla milanese accepted by the De.Co. (Communal Denomination) code. “It is prepared by flattening the rice with the hands onto greaseproof paper, until a pie is formed” It is then placed in a cooking pan in hot butter and it is cooked while the vessel is moved slowly until a crust is formed. It is then done on the other side.


Back to Gadda again: “With the first rains of September, fresh mushrooms in the casserole; otherwise, after San Martino, shavings of dried truffle done with a truffle slicer could find their way into the dish.” Neither of the two “manages to pervert the profound, the vital, the noble meaning of risotto alla milanese”. The De.Co. code allows the white truffle variation, as that of dried mushrooms and the third is traditional: risotto al salto.


Wine or no wine in risotto alla milanese? Roberta Schira writes, “The traditional recipes do not speak about it until the end of the 1800’s”. She adds: “Fading the rice into white or red wine seems to be a habit born of the disappearance of pan drippings (gras de rost) from risotto. The drippings already contained wine and hence the acidic component. When they were not available, wine was used, almost always red as a substitute”. According to Gadda, “two or more tablespoons of full-bodied red wine (Piedmont) do not step down from the obligatory prescription; however, they who care to do so may enhance the dish with that aromatic flavour which favours and speeds up their digestion.” Pellegrino Artusi, from the seventh edition of his “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” on, gives one recipe without wine and one with wine and marrow. On the other hand, the rules of the De.Co. say that it is important “never to add wine, which would kill the perfume of the saffron”. Anna Gosetti was of the same opinion, while Gualtiero Marchesi suggested using sour butter instead to balance out the gras de rost.


Rice is born in water and dies in wine according to the proverb, and especially in red wine. Barolo and Barbaresco form an ideal marriage, but Dolcetto and Pinot Noir too. If lacking, outside Italy, in the New World, Pinot Noir from Oregon, Australia and New Zealand are very satisfactory. In general, avoid wines that are excessively woody.



The Arabs brought “za’faran” to Europe from Persia. The Farsi word, “sahafaran,” (saffron) derives from “asfar,” which means yellow, due to the colour the stigmas assume once cooked. Around 1300, a Dominican monk brought it to Italy and it was cultivated in many places on the peninsula, starting with Sicily. Its Latin name is crocus sativus and very quickly it became the symbol for gold, happiness and wealth. “Today saffron is harvested in San Gavino in Sardinia and around L'Aquila in Abruzzo, above all on the Navelli Plain. According to many experts, Italian saffron and in particular that from Abruzzo, is absolutely the best,” writes Roberta Schira. The saffron from L'Aquila and that from San Gimignano are DOP. Recently, excellent saffron has been produced also in the Province of Arezzo. During the second fortnight of October saffron is harvested by hand; the elaboration of the stigmas is also manual. They contain an extremely high percentage of carotenoids, optimal natural antioxidants, and of vitamines B1 and B2, which contribute to the metabolisation of fats. Four or five pistils per person are the correct dosis.