Italian

In Venice, Less Is More

by:
March 15, 2018
Shrimp and artichoke risotto Photo by Emiko Davies

Elizabeth David, one of my favorite writers on Italian food traditions, has always put effort into teaching about risotto—and as a result, she has written some of the best material on the dish. In Italian Food (1954), she laid down rules that still should ring true: “In a good and conscientious restaurant, say, in Milan or Venice or Turin, you must wait for your risotto, just as in a French restaurant you would expect to wait for your soufflé.”

David's book, Is There a Nutmeg in the House?, released posthumously in 2000, includes a collection of previously unpublished articles. In the book, she specifies the many facets of a true risotto, including the “right type of rice”; unsurprisingly, she blasts a 1970s London Times recipe for “A Versatile Risotto” (containing bacon, mushrooms, green peppers, scraps of cooked chicken, peas, and fried chicken livers, and grated cheddar cheese, all cooked with “the inevitable chicken stock cube”) in her usual sharp and witty way. “I am well aware that such a dish may have its appeal to those with more appetite than discrimination,” she says, “and especially to those brought up in the British tradition of jumbling together a number of incompatible ingredients and eating them all at once off the same plate.”

David understands very well that more is not more in Italian cooking, and that only a small proportion of other ingredients belong with the rice in a risotto. With this logic, she spent decades trying to show people the way to a more elegant and distinct dish.

Shrimp and artichokes Photo by Emiko Davies

In her recipe for Vegetable and Shrimp Risotto, she describes beautifully the delicate texture of a true risotto: “If you have never eaten a risotto correctly cooked in Venice or in Milan, it is difficult to appreciate that there is a split-second in the cooking of the rice—just as for scrambled eggs—when the consistency is exactly right. It is neither too liquid not too compact. It is light, [and] every grain is separate, although bound together in a homogeneous whole by the starch, which has amalgamated with the cooking liquid.”

David's recipe, inspired by the two staple ingredients of a typical Venetian risotto (green vegetables and shellfish), includes lettuce, fennel, and dried shrimp, and the dish is brought together with boiling water—not stock, which she notes is unnecessary.

Risotto ready for plating Photo by Emiko Davies

My take on this Venetian classic, packed with fresh artichokes and whole, sweet, juicy shrimp, is a combination I love when fresh artichokes abound, in late winter and early spring.

If I'm using fresh, whole shrimp (which is almost always the case), I love making a quick stock with the head and shells, and using this stock to cook the rice. You might as well get as much flavor from them as you can, so do not throw them away.

And if you can't get good artichokes when you're making the dish, don't worry—try substituting with new peas or asparagus, if they're in season, as both go beautifully with shrimp, too. Or if you'd prefer leaving out the artichokes completely, you can take a page out of Venetian food writer Valeria Necchio's cookbook, Veneto, and simply go with the shrimp and a generous pour of prosecco in the dish. As I said, less is more.

Are you a risotto minimalist, too? Tell us about your few & favorite toppings in the comments.

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