As many of you know I have an enormous passion for risotto. I was introduced to this king of Northern Italian dishes in 1991 by my dear friend Matteo and his very talented brother Benjamin. The brothers were Italian born and Benjamin was living in Milano at that time and had come to pay his brother a visit in Dallas where Matteo and I were studying (mostly drinking, smoking, and talking). Matteo and our other roommate Ralph had been touting the culinary prowess of Benjamin for sometime and I for one was skeptical that this guy was going to cook food in my shitty student apartment that was going to blow me away.
Bear in mind I had just recently discovered “gourmet” cuisine on a summer trip to Houston where my friend’s mom had simply enlightened my mind and stomach for three compelling days of dining genius (this is a whole other blog, if not chapter), so I would not be easily convinced.
For months Ralph and Matteo had been lauding this mysterious store in Dallas called Al’s Import Foods (now defunct and may it R.I.P). According to my friends Al’s was the shit and the only place to get things likeBresaola, Arborio Rice, Mozzarella di Bufala, and much more. Now, I had no idea what any of those things were, but as soon as I went in and saw the sausages hanging above the meat counter, the smell of savory in the air, the staff wearing white butcher coats, and bottles and bottles of wine, I knew that place was cool; primarily because I had no idea what all this stuff was and how it could be used.
Benjamin walked up and down the aisles praising some things and choosing others as simply acceptable; even if sub-par for his standards. Keep in mind, I had not yet lived in Italy so I was a little miffed that this dude from the “3rd World” was coming into the nation of Texas and disparaging our grocery establishment. (pretty much any place not TEXAS at that time was 3rd world to me) I thought I should take this picky bastard over to Simon David, and show him what a real store is (ha!). Of course, my redneck pride was not nearly as big as my curiosity or hunger (thank God) so we packed up Arborio (weird-looking rice), onion, parmesan cheese (that’s what I called it back then) and some cheap wine in a cheap green bottle.
When we returned home Benjamin produced a slab of Salami, a clear bottle of white wine, and some yellow packets he had brought from Milan. I remember thinking how did he get that meat through customs (no TSA back then). What was in the packets was ground saffron (don’t give me any shit foodies, this is a good story, just keep reading) and when I smelled it I thought it smelled like iron ferrite. You are going to put that in the food? I remember saying.
Of course, it will be amazing said Ralph who had been over to Italy already with Benjamin and Matteo. I took their words for it but gave it no ceremony. I remember cranking some Garth Brooks and calling every attractive girl I knew to come join our amazing Italian feast and I got absolutely no takers; of course.
So there I was listening to Thunder Rolls when Ralph puts on a song called “Coca Cola” by the famous Italian pop star Vasco Rossi. At the time this had to be the funniest and worst song I had ever heard and especially since all the guys including our other roommate Neil were singing this shit at the tops of their voices. (Vasco Rossi is now one of my favorite artists in the world.)
At the time we were all around 21 and Benjamin was 23 or so but seemed much older. He had bright eyes, pale-skin, wore glasses that looked like Don Knotts from The Incredible Mr Limpet, and was 6’2″ and about 220. When I thought of Italians, Benjamin was not the picture in my head. Benjamin also had a marked British accent when he spoke English which he spoke very well without hesitation.
As the Italians (including Ralph) were gathered around the 2 burner hot plate in our absolute shit kitchen using our horrible pans I would not have given a homeless man I became more and more curious about the goings on of this risotto. What else are we having? I said assuming there would be some meat dish to go with this rice. I remember everyone in the kitchen suggesting I please shut up and let the people who know what they are doing prepare dinner.
Of course, part of my dismissal and disdain was my ignorance and how much I hated not helping and not knowing how. In truth, I was burning to be in that kitchen and seeing what was happening. I mean, these guys were actually using real butter in MY house and since I was a kid I had only seen real butter at the store. I grew up in an era where the vegetables were fresh from the garden and the brownies were homemade, but you better believe that Oleo was slathered on everything.
As the dish was coming together Matteo and Ralph laid bowls out on the table (which had to be cleared of books, tobacco rollers, dip-spit beer cans, ashtrays and Taco Bell wrappers). Are we having soup or cereal before dinner? I laughed to the group. No! Risotto is served in a bowl Matteo answered giving me his customary, what the hell is wrong with you look. Benjamin was now stirring constantly and the rest of us went out for a cig while Benjamin stayed behind; stirring.
What the hell is wrong with him, he don’t smoke? I said breathing out a cloud of freshly delivered Euro Philip Morris Super Light. No, said Matteo, but even if he did you have to stir the risotto constantly for 20 minutes or it will not cook properly. I was now almost in shock and thought to myself, this better be some fucking amazing rice if it is the only thing we are eating and you have to stand there for 20 minutes stirring like a chump while we are all out here loving us some nicotine and whatever this tart white wine was supposed to be.
Moments later, Benjamin called us in and asked Matteo to slice the salami. Finally something to eat I thought, but much to my surprise Benjamin suggested (very politely, as he is very polite) that the salami was for the rice and not to eat it ahead of time.
Now I was firmly entrenched in the kitchen and over the cook’s shoulder. As Benjamin added the saffron I was amazed at the color change and the way in which the oddly metallic and salty aroma of the seasoning filled the air. I found it to be pleasingly acrid and without realizing it the cheap little white wine (It was a Pigato from Liguria btw) began to really grow on me (I would not know why for several years)
I was now fixated on the pot in front of me and the way in which Benjamin expertly, stoically, stirred the rice. He kept a little small spoon by his side and would periodically taste the rice until finally deeming it close enough then he poured in a shot of this caramel smelling wine called Marsala and gave the rice a few more quick stirs. He removed the pan from the burner, added a quarter stick of butter, some grated parm, and put the lid on the rice.
What the hell was that all about, I asked. Benjamin said it was part of his family’s recipe for risotto giallo (yellow risotto) and that after it all steeps together for a moment he would stir the rice and serve. (these steps are variations from standard Risotto alla Milanese)
At this point I was actually starving and ripe with anticipation. When Benjamin began filling the bowls Matteo added a few slices of salami from Milan over the rice. As the thinly sliced discs of fatty, salty goodness began to wilt over the brightly colored rice each of us grabbed a bowl. Ralph had just opened a cheap bottle of red wine (Bardolino if I recall correctly) and we began to eat and drink in absolutely utter silence.
From the very first bite I knew I had never eaten anything like this before. The rice, which did not seem like rice at all; rather it tasted of toothsome, meaty, stock-filled kernels of joy. The pervasive aromas of iron and earthy flowers from the saffron jumped into my face while the buttery-cheesy cream from the starch pulled me back down to my comfort zone just when the woodsy Marsala and the fatty pork zinged me once again. Shit fire and shit again I was in fact, blown away!
I looked over at Benjamin and Matteo who appeared to be racing to get down their first bowls and I could sense this was was a joyous part of their upbringing. I saw Ralph, the Italian/American self-proclaimed baddest ass dude on earth was overwhelmed with a look of ecstasy I knew he could not replicate in the gym.
Then there was me, the skeptical redneck who had traveled almost nowhere and thought that good food meant large portions and low prices. I must have looked happier in that moment than at any time these guys had known me. I am very sure I would not have traded that singular dining experience for any of the women who had not accepted my dinner invitation.
Once every grain of rice was gone and every piece of salami devoured (about 11 minutes total) the conversation resumed over cigs and cheap beer that had replaced the quickly emptied bottle of wine we had enjoyed with the risotto. Benjamin dutifully and without hesitation began cleaning the kitchen as I sat there in a state of selfish euphoria because my dear friends had just opened my eyes to an entirely new world. A world that I would continue to inhabit for the next twenty years.
Stay tuned for my next post on my risotto philosophy and how I got there.