Welcome to the Asymptote blog’s new monthly column of recipes in translation! We’ll feature incredible dishes from around the world that are a joy to cook and an adventure just to read.
The preparation of good risotto alla Milanese requires quality rice of the Vialone variety, with a wide grain somewhat harder than that of Carolina rice, which has an elongated, almost tapered form. A rice that isn’t entirely hulled—that is, not entirely stripped of its pericarp—finds favor among the true connoisseurs of Piedmont and Lombardy: the farmers who use it in their own kitchens. A careful observation of the grain reveals a coating of the residue of its shed film, the pericarp, a tattered walnut- or leather-colored garment of the lightest fabric. When cooked properly, it makes for excellent risotto that is nutritious and rich in the vitamins that distinguish common wheat and seeds with their shell-veils. Peasant-style risotto from these types of rice turns out particularly exquisitely, as does risotto alla Milanese: somewhat darker, it’s true, after and despite its golden baptism in saffron.
The classic receptacle for the preparation of risotto alla Milanese is a round—or even oval—tinned copper pan with an iron handle: the old, heavy pan that, after a certain point, we stopped hearing anything about. It’s a precious fitting of the old and ample kitchen: it was an essential component of the “kitchen copper” or “coppers”—one that the old poet, Bassano, did not fail to enumerate in his poetic “interiors” where, more than once, with lunch digested, the gleaming coppers hanging from the brick backsplash soak up and refract a ray of the setting sun. With the old copper abducted, all we can do is put our faith in its substitute: aluminum.
The pan, taken to the fire by its handle and a felt potholder with the left hand, should receive the slices—or rather the tiniest pieces—of tender onion, a quarter of a ladle of broth—preferably beef stock—and the finest butter, from Lodi.
Butter, quantum prodest, according to the number of diners. At the first light fry of this humble amount of buttery-onion, the rice should be tossed in, bit by bit, until a total of two or three fistfuls per person is reached—to be varied according to the foreseeable hunger of those at the table. This bit of broth should not be left alone to the task of boiling the rice. The ladle—of wood, now—will have plenty to do: round and round. The grains meanwhile should swell up and harden against the tinned bottom, ardent, in this phase of the ritual, each maintaining its own “personality,” neither becoming pasty nor lumpy.
Butter, quantum sufficit, and no more, I beg you! It shouldn’t make puddles of filthy gravy: it should grease—not drown—every grain. The rice has to harden, like I said, against the bottom of the pan. Then bit by bit it swells up again, while cooking, with the gradual addition of the broth. Here you must be cautious and zealous: add the broth bit by bit, beginning with two half ladles-full from that “marginal” bowl that you’ll have ready. Into that broth, you will have dissolved powdered saffron. The unrivalled vibrant gastric stimulant that comes to us from dried and duly ground up flower pistils. For eight people use two teaspoons. The saffron broth should obtain the color of a mandarin orange, so that the risotto, once cooked to perfection (for twenty-two minutes), ends up a yellow-orange. For timorous stomachs less will suffice: two leveled, not heaping, teaspoons. That’ll make a light, canary-yellow risotto.
Most important is to assign to the rite a mind fearful of the gods and reverent towards the revered Aesculapius—or better, Asclepius—and to grant entry into the sacred “risotto alla Milanese” to only the finest of ingredients: the aforementioned Vialone rice with its lacerated cloak, the butter from Lodi (once known as Laus Pompeia), the baby onions. For the broth, a boiled beef stock with carrot-celery, all from the Po Valley, not from some retired, Balkan horned bull. For the saffron I recommend Carlo Erba Milano in sealed vials: it’s about ten or twelve, or at most fifteen lire per person: the price of half a cigarette. Don’t trick the gods, don’t forget Asclepius, don’t betray your relatives or the guests that Jupiter Xenius protects, just to deny Carlo Erba his reasonable guadambio. No! For the butter, if Lodi is lacking, Melegnano, Casalbuttano, Soresina, Melzo, Casalpusterlengo can come to the rescue: the low plains of Milan below the canals, from the Ticino to the Adda and up to Crema and Cremona. To margarine, I say: No! And to butter that tastes like soap: No!
Among the additives that are thinkable—even advised or requested by the hyper-expert and the hyper-technical—is bone marrow (from an ox). Previously set aside and delicately preserved for such use in another liminal bowl, the marrow is customarily placed in the pan about halfway through the cooking. At least one bone’s worth for each diner—to be swept out and stirred in with the ladle (wooden, again) in this last duty of the risotto-maker. The marrow, not unlike the well-measured butter, endows the risotto with a restrained oiliness: parroting, it seems, the hemopoetic function of our own marrow. Two or more spoons of full-bodied red wine from Piedmont may be included, not out of any prescriptive obligation, but because for those who like it the wine will confer upon the dish an aromatic flavor that accelerates and facilitates digestion.
Risotto alla Milanese shouldn’t be overcooked—oh dear, no! Just a bit more than al dente on the plate: the grain should be swollen and imbued with the aforementioned sauces, but the individual grain should not be stuck to its companions, not softened into a mush, or into a disgusting puddle. Grated Parmesan is barely allowed by good risotto makers: it’s a trivialization of the sobriety and elegance of the Milanese. With the first rains of September, fresh mushrooms can be added to the pan; or after Saint Martin’s Day, flakes of dried truffle from the special truffle-slicer may descend upon the plate. That is, on the served risotto, by work of the considerate server duly remunerated when things are done, when the party is over. Neither the mushroom version nor the truffle version can pervert the profound, vital, noble meaning of risotto alla Milanese.
 Aesculapius is the Latin spelling of the Greek Asclepius, the god of medicine.
 Guadambio is the popular Roman word for “earnings” or “profit.” The Author, growing old in exile, has forgotten the pure Italian of the impeccable censors. [Authors note.]
 Melegnano, Casalbuttano, Soresina, Casalpusterlengo, Melzo, Crema, Cremona are cities and towns in Lombardy; the Adda and the Ticino are two rivers that connect Lake Como and Lake Maggiore to the Po river.
 Saint Martin’s day is celebrated on November 11.
Translated from the Italian by Rebecca Falkoff.
This piece was first published as “Risotto alla Milanese” in Il Gatto selvatico, Vol. 5, No. 10 (October 1959), p. 16; then in Verso la Certosa (Milan-Naples: Ricciardi, 1961) with the title “Risotto patrio” [“Rice of the Fatherland”]
Carlo Emilio Gadda (Milan 1893- Rome 1973), the great neurotic polymath of modern Italian literature, is best known for his tangled unresolved murder mystery set in fascist Rome, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (1957). His celebrated style, marked by digressions and pastiche, has earned him a reputation as “the Italian James Joyce.”
Rebecca Falkoff is an Assistant Professor of Italian Studies at New York University where she teaches courses on the literary history of Italian cuisine. She has published essays on Elena Ferrante, Giorgio Manganelli, and Carlo Emilio Gadda, and is currently completing her first book, Hoarding: Disorder and Modernity. While living in Pavia—in risotto-rich Lombardy—she came to understand the profound, vital, noble meaning of risotto alla Milanese, despite her preference for the perverse version al radicchio.
Read More Translations: