May 29, 2017
Risotto is not a Southern Italian dish. Neither is polenta, for that matter.
I never had either until college when I started cooking from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook published in 1973. I still use the dog-eared copy I bought in college the year it was published.
It was a magnificent introduction to Northern Italian cooking which I knew little about as a kid of 18 from a small town in Western Pennsylvania in my sophomore year of college.
My knowledge of Northern Italian cooking expanded rapidly though. Marcella was only the beginning. There was a true restaurant renaissance in Philadelphia in the 1970’s. Not only magnificent French restaurants like Le Bec Fin and La Panetiere, but wonderful Northern Italian restaurants like the Monte Carlo Living Room and a bevy of others whose names I can’t recall. I ate at all of them…often. I still remember one dinner at the Monte Carlo Living Room where, after being served a very simple spaghetti with garlic and oil, the waiter (they weren’t called servers back then) came by with a black truffle and shaved large quantities of it onto my pasta. Heaven!
I also learned about Northern Italian cooking from the aunts of my college advisor Eugene (Gene) d’Aquili. Well, it was Roman cooking, actually, which is in central Italy but still pretty far north from where my mother’s family hailed.
Auntie Helen (Zia Elena) and Auntie Louise (Zia Luigia) (they Anglicized their names after coming to America) were born in Rome in the early years of the 20th century. They came to America as children. Of the two, Auntie Helen was the cook. From her I learned to make many classic Roman dishes. Some of Auntie Helen’s dishes are slated to make it into the blog, including a Roman Chicken Cacciatore flavored with anchovies.
So, by the time I got absorbed into my husband’s Northern Italian family (his father is from Tuscany and his mother from Friuli) I had a good grasp of Northern Italian cooking.
We have risotto often. Probably at least once every two weeks. It’s usually made with a vegetable, though occasionally I’ll make Risotto alla Milanese flavored with saffron and not a vegetable in sight. In the spring risotto usually includes asparagus or peas. In the summer it is likely to be zucchini. The fall brings butternut squash risotto and mushroom risotto. Mushroom risotto pretty much carries us through the winter, too, with the occasional risotto made with meat sauce.
Since it’s spring, I’m doing risotto agli asparagi, risotto with asparagus.