Even though chef Curtis Di Fede looks to his Sicilian and Calabrian heritage for inspiration, he has a soft spot for risotto, one of the staples of northern Italian cuisine.
The fact that Di Fede and his chef/partner, Tyler Rodde, at Napa’s Oenotri don’t feature risotto on their menu has nothing to do with regional prejudice.
It’s just that Di Fede is a culinary purist. “I don’t serve risotto because it must be done to order,” he contends. “And that takes about a half hour for each order.”
This is one dish that doesn’t allow shortcuts, Di Fede insists, and can’t be successfully prepared in advance as some commercial kitchens do.
Because many of Oenotri’s diners have requested risotto since the restaurant opened last spring, Di Fede is preparing the dish as the centerpiece of a special New Year’s Eve dinner at the downtown Napa restaurant. Oenotri will feature risotto as focal point of a pair of prix fixe dinner seatings Friday night. If you can’t get a seat at the New Year’s Eve dinner party, Di Fede agreed to share his recipe for Sweet Dumpling Squash and Green Garlic Risotto with Register readers today.
To make a good risotto, use only Italian risotto rice, Di Fede advised. Arborio is the one most commonly available in U.S. markets. Arborio rice grains are short and stubby and absorb liquid without becoming gluey — unless they are overcooked.
Di Fede feels that another type of Italian risotto rice, Acquerello Carnaroli Rice Superfino, is one of the best for risotto that he has ever come across. The Rondolini Family has been harvesting rice on their estate, “Tenuta Colombara,” in the province of Vercelli in Piemonte since 1935. In 1998 the entire production became organic.
Carnaroli rice is the only variety of rice sown on the farm. After the harvest, the un-hulled grains of Acquerello Carnaroli are aged in temperature-controlled silos from one to three years. The aging makes the starch, proteins and vitamins less water soluble. It improves the consistency of the grains and enables them to absorb more cooking liquid. In short, the cooked grains are bigger, firmer, do not stick together and taste great, Di Fede contends.
“You don’t see much risotto on menus south of Rome,” the chef said of his travels in Italy. “Risotto is popular in northern Italy. There’s a southern style, risotto a la pilotta, which means in the style of the rice picker. A lot of Italy’s rice is grown in the south and then transferred up north. You can find rice dishes along the coast in the south, usually more brothy, using seafood and seafood stock. No butter, no cream, no cheese.”
Risotto rice isn’t cheap. Di Fede’s favorite costs anywhere from $10 to $20, depending on package size, available at Williams-Sonoma and online at gustiamo.com and amazon.com. However, other brands can be found at Vallerga’s and Whole Foods.
The most important thing to remember when preparing risotto, Di Fede insists, is that the rice must be constantly stirred, with hot stock added a cup at a time, until it has reached a point of softness — yet the grains are retaining their shape. They should be creamy, with a slightly resistant core and should not stick together or to the bottom of the pan. The whole procedure takes 20 to 30 minutes, he says.
Use a wide, heavy saucepan or skillet (if the pan is too light, the risotto can burn) and a wooden spoon to stir the rice. Always add hot stock (preferably homemade) and, except in the case of seafood, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that is freshly grated.
“From the moment you add the first of the liquid, you can’t leave the pot,” the chef adds. “You have to keep stirring in order to develop the starches. I toast my rice first. You could toast the rice and vegetables beforehand and let that sit for up to a half hour. But once the liquid is added, you have to keep stirring until it’s finished, 20 minutes or so later. It’s a textural thing. Risotto should not be held (midway through the cooking procedure as some chefs do). It’s a dish that should be served to order only.”
Attending the party
Located on First Street across from the Avia Hotel, Oenotri is planning on two seatings for the New Year’s Eve dinner Friday night, notes general manager Lauren Duncan.
The first, at 5 p.m., features a five-course meal (salad, soup, risotto, main course and dessert) for $80. Cost of the 8:30 seating is $100 per person, offering diners warm appetizer, salad, soup, risotto, entrée, dessert and a glass of prosecco for a midnight toast.
There are two wine pairings for the festival dinner, at $50 and $75, according to wine director Sur Lucero. He’s featuring a Barbaresco for the risotto course as he believes it will pair well with the squash, green garlic and balsamic vinegar the chef incorporates in the dish.
At present, Lucero has five dozen Barbarescos and Barolos on the Oenotri wine list, 40 of them priced under $100. Oenotri always features 25 Italian imports priced at $25 or less.
For reservations at the New Year’s Eve affair (which will entail leaving one’s credit card information), call 252-1022.