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'Italian' risotto

  • d
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This evening, I ordered a risotto at an Italian restaurant. The rice was long, soft and bland. It did not look or feel like any arborio or carnaroli with which I have been acquainted, seemed clearly overcooked, and was just not at all what I had anticipated. (It was a mushroom risotto and the flavor was exceedingly mild, with no foundation of earth or musk or any kind of umami. But my point here is the rice). When the waiter asked how I found it, I told him that it was overcooked. He drew himself up and said that it was 'Italian risotto'. Being unfamiliar with the finer points of Peruvian and Senegalese risotto, I can only speculate about the distinction he was drawing. But when I followed on by saying that it had no resistance or texture, he insisted that 'creamy' risotto such as theirs was really the beau ideal and al dente an aberration. The whole experience was a disappointment because I had been growing excited about what I had thought was an unrecognized neighborhood gem; because he continued to argue his point after he had made it instead of saying that regardless, he was sorry that I didn't care for it; and because they neither comped the uneaten dish nor made any other acknowledgment of my dissatisfaction (see preceding item). But before I give up on the place entirely, I want to take the precaution of presenting the case to this audience, in case I am the one in error and the real conclusion to be drawn is that I just don't know or care for properly made risotto.

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  1. Well, "long, soft, and bland" doesn't give me a complete picture. "Long" doesn't sound like risotto, soft could simply mean it was overcooked, and bland--well, who knows. However, "He drew himself up and said that it was 'Italian risotto'" rings a bell. This is the kind of pretentious dork in a 10th-rate restaurant who tries to survive by imtimidating any customer with a trace of taste. In fact, I've seen the same phenomenon at relatively well-regarded restaurants where someone slipped up in hiring a new waiter. All of this, of course, is predicated on the assumption you know what a risotto ought to be. However, I'd have to say that the response suggests to me that you're right. Sad to say, these thugs are all too common. I suppose you could complain to the management but guess who hired this idiot. I say just walk away. Places like this don't deserve a second chance.

    1. I was always under the impression that a perfect risotto should have a tiny point of hard pearly centre in each grain of rice. And no flavour is rarely a good thing.

      1. I agree with the other posters.

        Besides, the waiter's point that "creamy" is authentic is moot. Al dente risotto can also be creamy.

        1. When in doubt, consult the experts!

          According to Marcella Hazan in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, "[c]hoosing the correct rice variety is the first step in making one of the greatest dishes of the Northern Italian cuisine, risotto. What a grain of good risotto rice must be able to do are two essentially divergent things. It must partly dissolve to achieve the clinging, creamy texture that characterizes risotto, but, at the same time, it must deliver firmness to the bite."

          She goes on to say that of the various varieties of rice used for risotto in Italy, three are exceptional: arborio (large and plump), vialone nano (stubby, small), and carnaroli (newer variety which she finds "most excellent," as "[i]ts kernel is sheathed in enough soft starch to dissolve deliciously in cooking, but it also contains more of the tough starch than any other risotto variety so that it cooks to an exceptionally satisfying firm consistency."

          As to the flavor, the exposition on that part is 3 pages long, so I won't quote it, but in essence, the rice, cooked properly, is basically a delivery device for the flavor base of the dish, which can be anything, including vegetables, meat, fish, or other ingredients. There are two basic styles, a "stickier" compact version popular in Piedmont, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna (more suited to heartier flavors like meat, sausage, cheese, game, etc.) and the "looser, runny" style of Venice (more suited to delicate flavors like seafood and spring veggies).

          According to Judy Rodgers in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, "Most of the unfixable, bland risotto I have tasted in my kitchen owes to mediocre stock. No high-concept, earnest technique, added salt, extra cheese, glamour vegetables, or final spash of great wine will mask it. Delicious stock, on the other hand, can carry a risotto by itself, and will harmonize with carefully dosed embellishments."

          So, it sounds like you had overcooked risotto made with the wrong kind of rice and bland stock. I would simply call a spade a spade -- i.e. "Badly Prepared Risotto," rather than "Italian Risotto." If you really enjoyed other aspects of the meal, it might be worth going back to the restaurant, but if you do, order something else!

          1. i would not give up on the place entirely, nor do i believe there is a separate "Italian" preparation for risotto as you described. Basically it sounds as if the kitchen prepared it badly and the waiter acted even worse. I had a similar experience with the risotto preparation (twice) at a local restaurant and my DW told me on the way out to give up on trying their risotto. Since the food is otherwise very good, we'll be back. As for the waiter in your case, i would definitely have mentioned something to the manager on the way out. Next time ask to sit in a different section.

            2 Replies
            1. re: jfood

              Thanks for all the largely affirming responses. Of course, the very first thing I did when I got home was to consult my (autographed!) Marcella Hazan. But I wasn't confident in my interpretation, and wanted to give the place the benefit of the doubt as they were otherwise quite nice and the staff (including the offending server) are Italian. (On the other hand, I always find it bizarre that people seem so ready to accept nationality as a guarantee of culinary skill or taste when other countries are involved--such that an Irish or Gujarati chef assures the 'authenticity'/quality of the cuisine of their--respective--Irish and Gujarati restaurants; and 'every other diner there was Japanese' tells non-Japanese interlocutors that the restaurant in question is not to be questioned. But I digress, except to the extent that I might expose the waiter's ideological cover for poorly constructed, poorly executed risotto).

              That said, I did tip a full 20 per cent as they had been very accommodating allowing me to sit on the terrace with my dog and moving me twice when it started to rain. Also I was served by 2 people and suspected my actual waiter was another person who nevertheless seemed junior to the risotto waiter, and I didn't want to penalize him. Moreover, I will return to the restaurant as other dishes have been more successful. On the other hand, I will not now post a specific recommendation it as I had previously been preparing to do (in fact it was one of the reasons I ordered the risotto, that I might have a better range of experiences from which to judge).

              1. re: dbird

                That seems rational and fair all around.

                ed (the poster formerly known as e.d.)