My Love Affair with Risotto

ImageI LOVE risotto. It's one of the many things I had never eaten before I moved to California. Never even heard of it in my two decades of growing up in Western Massachusetts. I know that seems hard to believe, but I made my parents risotto when they came out to visit 5 years ago and they had no idea what it was. Seriously. Italian food growing up was lasagna, pasta with red sauce or pizza. I can't remember the first risotto I ever ate, but I know I was instantly hooked because it's the dish I always order whenever I see it on the menu...or hear it as the special. I just can't help myself. I love the creamy, chewy consistency of it, the homeyness, the endless possibilities. It's a dish I make at least 3-4 times a month, as it's fairly simple and hard to screw up. Or so I thought. Apparently, I've been serving it all wrong.

I got a hint of my wrongdoing when I watched a recent Top Chef All-Star show and Tre, one of the chef/contestants, got lambasted by Tom Colicchio and Anthony Bourdain, two of the judges, for making risotto that was too thick and sticky. Apparently, it's supposed to be more fluid and al dente, spreading out to cover the plate without any help - like a wave. He offended their risotto sensibilities and was sent home. It got me thinking. Clearly I had rarely eaten a "proper" risotto and never, in all my delicious attempts, ever made one either. Apparently, I was making an Italian rice bowl. I had to do better. And that's where another All-Star contestant comes in.

ImageFabio Viviani owns a restaurant, Firenze Osteria, in my neighborhood and recently began holding Italian cooking classes to teach his legion of local fans what they're doing wrong and how to make it right.

When I heard he was going to be teaching "us" how to make perfect risotto, I just had to join in the fun. This isn't exactly your normal cooking class. There's no hands-on training. No official recipe. It's more of a lecture/comedy routine, where Fabio shows/tells you the steps and how not to fuck it up. His words, not mine.

While he cooks in front of his "students", his crew prepares the same recipe behind him in the kitchen and you get to taste the final results. So, sort of a class/lunch. Drinking is encouraged, though extra. A pretty good deal for $40.

ImageHe's quite a character with an interesting life story and no shortage of charm or confidence. Part of it may be an act, but you won't really care. What's abundantly clear is that he's enjoying his life and loves to cook. He also helped me figure our what I was doing wrong. As much as I enjoy risotto of all flavors, his basic version which had just 7 everyday ingredients - olive oil, butter, minced onion, arborio rice, white wine, chicken stock and parmesan - was one of the most amazing versions I have ever eaten. I could have eaten the whole pan of it and wanted more. It seemed to be magic. I saw him make it myself and would not have believed something so simple could taste sooooo good.

To see what sort of teacher he was (and how well I paid attention), I decided to attempt to recreate this dish at home.  If I could master this I would be very happy and so would my husband, though he didn't know it yet. I was already quite familiar with the process, but now I was supposedly armed with the proper techniques. I know Fabio had better ingredients on hand - like homemade chicken stock and fancy parmesan - but if mine was only 80% as good it would be a housewife home run. So here's what I did:

BASIC RISOTTO (for 2 people)
This risotto is what you would use as a side dish to accompany the protein of your choice.

1 cup Arborio/Carnaroli rice

- As Fabio says, if you're not using one of these types you aren't making risotto. They have a higher starch content than long grain rice which allows them to soak up the liquid/stock and gives the dish its creamy texture. Just don't make it with any other rice. Just don't. And don't rinse the rice. That would defeat the purpose.

A handful of minced onion or shallot, chopped as finely as the grains of rice

- He was not specific, well a handful is a handful. As he said use common sense. This is not onion risotto, it's merely there to add depth to the flavor. If you need a number it's around a 1/4 cup, for those with normal size hands.

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- Again, guessing here, but that's what almost every other risotto recipe says, so I'm going with it.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- He just threw a bunch of pats into the pan. I cook with a lot of butter and it looked to be around that amount.  By the way, he claims you don't need both if you're on a diet restricting one or the other, but you must use one or the other.

White wine - about a 1/3 cup
- As they say in all the cookbooks, the actual type (Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, etc.) doesn't really matter. What does matter is the quality. Don't use a $20 bottle as you're just wasting it, but make sure it's something you would actually drink. Some of the flavor is imparted into the dish. Plus, it's nice to have a glass on hand while you're waiting for the rice to cook, so it helps if it's decent.

3-4 cups of chicken stock (warm or room temperature)
- Of course, it's better to have homemade, but if you're not inclined to make your own, canned/boxed is fine, but not completely sodium free. Otherwise you might as well use water and you don't want to do that. His words. You can also use vegetable stock, if you're vegan/vegetarian, but he says it won't taste as good. Hey, I'm just the messenger.

1/3-1/2 cup of grated Parmesan-Reggiano
- Again he said a handful, but it was a generous handful. Clearly the higher the quality of the cheese, the better the risotto is going to taste. Do NOT use the stuff out of the can. Just use the best you can afford.

A pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper

- Fabio is Italian so his pinch is a bit more generous, if you know what I mean. He used three fingers and a gesture that is best left to the memories of those who were in the room. You may want to err on a smaller amount as you can always add more. Once it's too salty, you're doomed.


This is where it's going to get a bit free form, but I'll at least try to explain how I went about it. Most recipes claim you have to stir constantly. He did not. Just enough to make sure everything is mixed together and not sticking to the pan. He was right. You do have to pay attention, however, so don't leave the stove.

1) Add the oil and butter to a medium-large saute pan over medium heat. Once the butter is melted add the minced onion. Saute the onion until it's soft and golden, but not browned. About 7-8 minutes. You're sweating it, not caramelizing it. That's a different recipe.

Image2) Add the rice and stir to make sure it's coated in the butter/oil. Saute for about 2-3 minutes.

3) Add the wine to deglaze the pan. Just enough to cover the rice. It should bubble. (If it's not, turn up your heat a bit.) Let it cook until all the liquid is evaporated. About 3-4 minutes.

4) Add enough chicken stock to cover the rice. As he explained it, "like the ocean covering the sand." He swirled the rice around making waves. I did not. He's a professional. I did not want rice all over my stovetop. I stirred it to make sure the stock and rice were evenly distributed and worked the spoon around every minute or so. When all the liquid is absorbed, add another ladle. Stir it around a bit, then let it sit. He claims that this should take around 15 minutes and 3-4 additions of stock. At that point, the rice grains should still be visible as such, which means they are still al dente and almost done. 1st rule of making risotto: Do not overcook your rice into a sticky mess. It should be fairly creamy since it has released its starch and is soft on the outside, but slightly firm when biting down. Check it before the 4th addition of stock. If it's done move to step #5. If not, add some more stock. But it should be close.

5) Now add a final bit of stock (just so the rice isn't sticky), salt and pepper to taste and parmesan. Stir to fully incorporate new ingredients, take off the heat and let sit for a few minutes. Once the cheese has melted, plate and serve. If done correctly, the risotto should pour out of the pan and spread across the plate without help.

6) Add a pinch of fresh herbs, if you desire.

So, did this work? Well, it was al dente, but didn't quite spread across the plate like he showed us. My husband wolfed his down and my plate was licked clean as well, so better than usual without a doubt. I think I was a bit stingy with the stock and that it was a bit firmer than it should have been. Overall, the flavor was great. The texture still needed work. I know Fabio didn't master this in one try, so I cleaned out the pan and was ready, willing and able to try again. 

My next plan of attack was to make drunken risotto. A little wine for the pan, a little wine for me. Cooking should be fun, right? At least I figured it would make the time at the stove more interesting and if it didn't come out perfectly, I wouldn't care as much. Well, guess what? It was awesome! Better than the steak we served alongside and almost didn't need. Like most things in this world and especially in front of a stove, you need practice, common sense and a bit of imagination. I found a bunch of recipes, read what they had to say, and interpreted it into my own version. Usually I freeform a bit at the stove, especially with risotto, but this time I wrote it down so I could make it again. And I will be. Soon.


1/3 cup finely minced red onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups red wine - not your best bottle, something full-bodied and fruity though with some savory elements, like Malbec, Monastrell or Syrah. Nothing too green or tannic like Cabernet or Petite Sirah.
2 cups chicken stock
2 slices uncooked bacon, diced into 1/2" squares - use high quality. If it's extra smokey that helps.
1 1/2 cups chopped mushrooms
1 cup carnaroli or arborio rice
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme - or more to taste
Freshly cracked black pepper and kosher salt

1) Pour the chicken stock into a medium size saucepan. Turn on heat to low. Add all but 1/4 cup of the wine to the pot.

2) Add the oil and butter to a medium-large saute pan over medium heat. Once the butter is melted add the minced onion and garlic. Saute until they begin to soften. About 5 minutes. Then add the bacon and mushrooms. Cook another 5-8 minutes until they begin to brown. Be careful of the heat. Do not burn the garlic and onion.

3) Add the rice. Stir to incorporate well and keep stirring for 2-3 minutes to evenly heat the rice.

4) Add the 1/4 wine that was held back to deglaze the pan. Make sure it coats everything and then continue to cook until it's all absorbed or evaporated.

Image 5) Add you first ladleful of the stock/wine liquid. Make sure it covers the rice but isn't drowning in it. Stir well and then every minute or so to keep the rice coated. After about 5 minutes, the liquid should be absorbed. If not turn up your heat a bit, so the rice is mildly simmering. Add another two ladles of liquid, each time waiting for the mixture to be almost dry. By this time the rice should be close to being ready.

6) Before the 4th ladle, add a pinch of salt and pepper, as well as the thyme. Add the liquid and stir to mix in the spices. When this final bit is incorporated the rice should be perfectly al dente and creamy. If it's still too hard add additional wine/broth until it's almost done.

7) In the final addition add the cheese and a bit more stock/wine so the risotto isn't too sticky, and any additional salt and pepper you think it needs. Stir to mix thoroughly, turn off the heat and let sit for a few minutes.

This one takes a bit longer since you're cooking vegetables, but is pretty much the same once you start adding the wine/stock. It's important to stir but it doesn't have to be constant and to taste the rice after the third addition of liquid to see the texture of the rice and if you have to make adjustments.  I have made a lot of risottos, some better than others and it's just something that takes repetition to get right. It's soooo worth it though.

Serves 2 as a main meal, 4 as a side dish (some form of red meat would be best).


Lisa Dinsmore is a writer, web programmer, movie and wine lover. She currently runs two review websites to share her passions: and She is also the Managing Editor of One for the Table.