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!