Rice in Italy: Historical Background, Recipes to Try and What Kinds of Rice to Use for Risotto

Rice is not something considered especially “Italian”, but it surely has an interesting story within the country that was able to valorise it through the art of “risotto”. Let’s discover some interesting facts about rice in Italy and some mouthwatering recipes!

If you’re an Italophile and have been reading blogs and books about Italy, I guess by now you know that Italians always love to point out the difference between the regions even concerning food. Many Italians even state that there’s no such a thing as “Italian cuisine”, but there are “regional cuisines”. Even though there’s surely truth in this statement – especially given the multitude of microclimates and ingredients within the peninsula – it’s also true that books like “The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well” by the beloved Pellegrino Artusi demonstrated that a “culinary unification” within the country was possible. Artusi’s book is indeed considered the first cookbook able to establish an official national Italian cuisine.

Moreover, the typical Italian attitude of not approving modern foreign versions of traditional Italian dishes gives us the label of “food nazis”, not open enough “to experiment”. This is usually not something I agree with, since we might be too strict in certain circumstances, but I actually consider Italian cuisine the result of centuries of experimentations and foreign influences.

Let’s just think about Campania, which cuisine, strongly focused on different uses of the tomato, wouldn’t even exist in this form if America weren’t first “discovered” by Columbus. Or let’s just think about the two extreme corners of the country, South Tyrol and Sicily, respectively influenced by the Austrian-Hungarian and the Middle-Eastern (but not only) cuisines. And what about coffee “Italian style”? We don’t even grow the plants here! Isn’t ours a “new interpretation” of the beverage?

I could go on with lots of examples, but today we are here to discuss an ingredient in particular, not specifically associated with Italy, but quite used in our cuisine. I actually decided to write about it, because it represents a global and multiethnic food, something that actually unifies us all: it’s rice.

Production of Rice in Italy

Translated as “riso” in Italian, which is actually a double-meaning word, since it also stands for “laugh”, it’s mainly used in Northern Italy.

It is estimated that, after corn, rice is the most widespread cereal in the world and that globally around 6 persons out of 10 eat it.

Rice is not frequently associated with our country, but, at this day, Italy is the first producer in Europe (around 920.000 tons in 2017). 90% of the production comes from:

  • Lombardy, especially from the area of Pavia and Lodi, with the first being the leader;
  • Piedmont, in the provinces of Biella, Novara, Vercelli and Alessandria;
  • The southern area of Verona.

The other producers are mainly located in between Veneto and Emilia Romagna (Rovigo, Ferrara and Reggio Emilia), Cosenza and Sardinia (provinces of Oristano and Cagliari).

History of Rice in Italy

It is believed that Asian rice was imported in Greece by the soldiers of Alexander the Great and then reached our peninsula. Romans imported it from Asia and considered it a drug: it was used to produce a skin cream and, believed it or not, some sort of “doping” for gladiators. Only during the first half of the 16th century a doctor from Siena published a book in which he suggested rice could be a great food.

The first rice fields developed in Lombardy and lately in Piedmont and Veneto.

Someone believes that rice was actually first employed in Southern Italy – imported by the Spaniards in Naples and by the Arabs in Sicily (see the Sicilian arancino, which origin is still unclear, though) – but, even if this is the case, it didn’t really stick in that area of the country.

On the contrary, in the last century it was believed that Southern Italians were the biggest critics of rice. But there seems to be a valid reason for that.

Like specific smells, also dishes have a deep impact on our subconscious and recall us peculiar memories, which can be pleasant or very bad. Sadly for a long time Southern Italians connected rice with the trenches since when they were in the frontlines in Northern Italy during WW1, they were forced to eat an awful rice soup, which they called “sciacquapanza” (belly-washer). The former soldiers from Southern Italy even made some sort of promise – I will never eat rice soup again in my life! – and the dislike was sort of transmitted through the generations as rice wasn’t part of the Southern cuisine for the next 50 years. The numbers prove this tendency as there was a plummeting domestic consumption of rice after the war.

The Art of Risotto

When talking referring to Italian rice-based dishes, it is inevitable to talk about risotto. Probably born in Lombardy, it’s a first-course cooked with a broth until it reaches a creamy consistency.

The production of Italian rice reflects this predisposition toward risotto. We are not competitive in the production of parboiled rice and “long rice“, which are those varieties employed when using rice as a side-dish, but leaders in the production of select varieties able to absorb liquid and release starch, which are ideal for risotto.

  • Variety “Arborio”, named after the town of Arborio in Piedmont, was officially born in 1946. The grains are round and very big and one must pay attention when cooking it since it quickly passes the cooking point. It cooks in 13 minutes;
  • Variety “Carnaroli”: thanks to its characteristics, in Italy it’s considered “il re dei risi”, the king of rice. It’s longer and contains more starches in comparison with the Arborio variety. It’s compact and it cooks in around 15 minutes;
  • Variety “Vialone Nano”: among the select varieties, it is the most versatile. It’s rich in starch and able to absorb lots of liquids, making it ideal for creamy risottoes. It cooks in 13 minutes and maintains the cooking point.

Rice-Based Dishes to Try when in Lombardy

The “capital cities of Risotto” are surely to be found in Lombardy: they’re Milan and Pavia.

When in Milan, try risotto alla milanese, also known as “riso giallo” (yellow rice), which is THE risotto. It is made with beef bone marrow, lard, cheese and saffron which is what gives this dish its peculiar yellow colour.

Another peculiar risotto, which is probably not something that encounters everybody’s tastes is risotto alla certosina, which was given this name because invented by the monks of Certosa di Pavia. It contains peas, mushrooms, fish and…frogs. I confess that I never had the guts to try frogs, but people have told me they are good and that they taste like chicken 🙈

Riso alla pilota is another dish to try when in Mantua.

Rice-Based Dishes to Try when in Veneto

Here we are with my region! When in Veneto I surely recommend you to try risotto al radicchio, if you’re not afraid to taste something with a bitterish flavour. Radicchio di Treviso is a very famous IGP product.

Another great classic of the Venetian cuisine is the so-called risi e bisi, which in our dialect means “rice and peas”. Given that it belongs to “cucina povera”, I must be honest, it’s not that easy to find it in the restaurants, but if you manage to get invited to a dinner by a local, it’s possible you’ll get the chance to taste it.

Another recommendation I can give you is to have a look at this post about risi e bisi written by the lovely Tina of Tina’s Table and try the recipe yourself.

After having encountered many difficulties when trying to find this dish in the Venetian restaurants, Tina researched the topic, consulted several Italian receipe books and finally tried to make it by herself!

Tina is an American with Italian ancestry living in Bologna and a personal chef with a degree earned at The French Culinary Institute in NYC. If you’re looking for a food blog focused on Italian cuisine, I truly recommend to follow her as, other than being passionate about the topic, it’s evident she throughly researches the matter. Follow her on her blog Tina’s Table and on her instagram!

I’m curious to read your impressions. Is rice popular in your country? Have you tried rice-based dishes in Italy? Tell me in the comment section!

[ This post is part of the DolcevitaBloggers Linkup – hosts: Questa Dolce Vita, Italian At Heart, Mamma Prada]


26 thoughts on “Rice in Italy: Historical Background, Recipes to Try and What Kinds of Rice to Use for Risotto

  1. We use rice quite a lot, but have only just started making our own Risotto thanks to our Zia’s in Italy. They make the best Carciofi Risotto and Asparagus Risotto and we finally tried to make it ourselves and have to say it’s a lot of fun to do. 🙂 It’s interesting reading about the different regions recipes and the history of it!

    Lucy and Kelly

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I remember you writing about Asparagus risotto! It’s actually one of my favourite ones along with leech risotto and mushrooms risotto! Yummy!


  2. Fascinating as always Sara! I am so surprised that Alberto has never mentioned Risi e Bisi (since he’s my source of knowledge for food from Veneto lol). Probably because he’s not a fan of peas I’m assuming! lol He always uses Vialone Nano though. It’s virtually unknown in the US…we only have Carnaroli & Arborio readily available. I definitely need to check out that book “The Science of Cooking & Art of Living Well.” And I love Tina’s instagram as well! Thanks so much for joining us for #DolceVitaBloggers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nooo, why you hate peas, Alberto!? 😂

      Yeah, in Veneto we all use Vialone Nano quite a lot since, as I said, it is produced in Verona! I personally use Vialone Nano and Carnaroli!


  3. I’ve eaten quite a bit of rice in Italy, from the creamier risotto to what I’d describe as a drier rice that I’ve had served with seafood, for example. In the US, we have a wide variety of rices, and over recent years wild rice has become quite popular. It’s dark to black and has a rather satisfying chewiness.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an interesting article! I love rice and you can get all sorts here in the U.K. as well as risotto, wild rice is one of my favourites.

    Not traditionally italian but in winter I make a risotto with leftover roast chicken, homemade stock and porcini mushrooms with some truffle oil 😋

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love pasta but rice is also a dish I enjoy. I’ve many many types of risotto, experimenting with different ingredients. However, in restaurants I don’t typically gravitate to the rice dishes, I’m not sure what that is – perhaps because I like to choose things that I wouldn’t normally make on my own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s why Italians usually do not order pasta at the restaurant! It just doesn’t make sense, since we basically eat it everyday at home! I know fellow countrymen who order pasta at the restaurant only in certain peculiar circumstances (for ex. ordering it with seafood or with ingredients they don’t usually eat at home).


  6. I absolutely love risotto-I even love leftover risotto, which most people hate. My favourite is risotto di zucca 🎃. Interesting about the reason riso was not as popular in the Sud. Sciacquapanza sounds awful! I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Italian cooking. If someone wants to change up a recipe, go ahead, but they need to call it something else. I recently saw a recipe for ‘vegan carbonara’ which is ridiculous when the 3 main ingredients are eggs, pecorino and guanciale! I think I will go make some arancine now! Buon appetito, Cristina

    Liked by 2 people

    1. tinastable

      Un po’ di pepe that is my culinary pet peeve as well! Be creative all you want but change the damned name of a traditional dish if you’re not going to make it as it’s typically and traditionally done. I will stop myself from a long rant…😁

      Liked by 2 people

      1. tinastable

        Absolutely! I loved your article on Blub! My brother-in-law has taken many shots of his/her work so I sent him your article too. Brava!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. DON’T TELL ME ABOUT IT. They just want to take advantage of the name or “the brand”, imo. I have a similar opinion about Tiramisù as well. You find all kinds of Tiramisù abroad (and even in Italy!) that replace coffee with all sorts of things (strawberries, kiwis, oranges etc.), which is ok. But I don’t see the point of calling it “tiramisù” since it lacks its fundamental ingredient: the coffee. After all it’s literally called “pick me up” because of coffee!!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Mannaggia! Tiramisù is one of the worst. Pineapple limoncello tiramisù is just a trifle made with pineapple and liqueur. My motto-don’t mess with perfection-and if you do-rename it! Ciao Cristina 😎

        Liked by 1 person

  7. tinastable

    Great article Sara! Thanks for the shout out and kind words. This article made me think of another Italian rice dish that I’ve been wanting to try at home which is Tiella from Puglia. Have you had it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t mention it, you’re doing a great job with your blog!

      I’ve heard of Tiella many times, but I never tried it! Italy is so incredibly rich in terms of cuisine that we don’t even know all the dishes of the different regions!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. tinastable

        Thanks again! I’m trying… Yes, the diversity of the cuisine is endlessly fascinating. I continually come across new dishes. It’s amazing, the scope and depth of the cuisine. I’ve had tiella in Milano of all places at a nice Pugliese restaurant.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The Search for Risi e Bisi (Part 2) with Recipe - Tina's Table

  9. Sara, your posts are always so wonderfully well-researched and well-written. I would love to see all this beautiful info in a book form as well! When I start reading your posts, I know immediately that I need to make room in my brain and I always come away from them feeling enriched with knowledge. My husband absolutely adores risotto and for the longest time I never made it because I was somewhat scared of the process but it’s actually quite relaxing and “easy” once you know what you’re doing. I’m still always worried about overcooking, much in the same way as I am with pasta and so towards the end I tend to get rather neurotic haha but I think it’s worth it in the end no?! Thanks for the great post for #DolceVitaBloggers this month! Love, Jasmine.


  10. mammaprada

    Being married to a Northern Italian I have eaten quite a lot of risotto! I do love it and find it a real comfort food. I didn’t know all this in-depth information, so thank you! You always teach us something Sara and I really enjoy this about your articles. I really fancy making a risotto now it’s such a therapeutic dish to cook.


  11. I love this post, Sara!! As always its so knowledgeable. As you probably know, we are a big rice producing and eating nation. There are parts of India that consume a lot of rice and me coming from the region of Himachal- a big consumer. I love risotto in Italy and its definitely warm and comforting. I appreciated it more during the winter time this year when I had gone and was more familiar with arborio which is easily available. My friend from Milan tells me she will get me Carnaroli next time she visits India. (she is currently here) Will check the book and Tina’s blog. I adore her IG!! ❤ Much love


  12. Elena

    As a Veneto girl, I’m a fan of Vialone Nano ❤ In my place, Verona, we have many specialties: the radicchio one you mentioned, the Amarone one (even if is a kind of blasphemy for me to use such a good wine to cook XD), the asparagus one and the BEST OF ALL, risotto with tastasal (a typical sausage meat) coming from the poor agricultural tradition.


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