I’m Smiling Now Risotto

Each time I pull “The Fine Art of Italian Cooking,” by Giuliano Bugialli off the shelf, I have to chuckle as I think back to the time I met the author.

It was during the spring of 2007. I was attending the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference in Chicago. My friend, Mary Risley, owner of Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco, and I had made plans to have dinner together in Chicago. She asked me to make the arrangements, mentioning a few well-known restaurants she didn’t want to eat at as she had already visited those places several times.

I felt the pressure of trying to find a dining spot in Chicago that would meet Mary’s standards. After much research, I discovered a place about 15 minutes from the downtown hotel where we would be staying. It was a small, fairly new restaurant that had been opened by two young chefs. The on-line reviews were excellent. I made the reservations for three: Mary Risley, my husband and me.

After a full day at the conference, I still had not run into Risley. I mentioned this to my husband. “Oh, I was in the elevator with her today. She said Julie somebody would be joining us for dinner on Friday night.” Julie? I had no idea who that might be. I called the restaurant to let them know there would be one more person at our table.

I finally connected with Mary Risley the next day. The name my husband heard Mary say as “Julie” was actually her longtime friend, Giuliano Bugialli. He is the one who would be joining us for dinner. I was not familiar with the name. I happened to mention this bit of news to my Italian friend, Carmela Tursi Hobbins, who was also attending the conference. She went crazy nuts with excitement. Apparently, this Bugialli guy was a well-known Italian cookbook author and traveling cooking instructor. Carmela had taken classes from this popular Italian cooking teacher I had never even heard of. She would love to join us for dinner. I called the restaurant to add another person to my reservation. Carmela called her husband to tell him she would be having dinner with Giuliano Bugialli.

A few hours before our dinner together on Friday evening, Mary Risley called to let me know she would join us at the restaurant. She had another commitment that evening. Giuliano would be waiting for us in the hotel lobby.

Carmela immediately spotted the distinguished-looking Italian in the hotel lobby. The trusting cookbook author allowed us to whisk him away to the car waiting outside. My husband was behind the wheel waiting for us.

As we pulled up to the tiny restaurant tucked into an Armitage neighborhood west of downtown Chicago, my heart sank. It was an old, shabby building with graffiti decorating the large plate-glass window. Great way to impress two well-known culinary professionals!

Once we stepped inside, though, I breathed a sigh of relief. The intimate dining room was warm and cozy. We were seated at one of the half-dozen tables by one of the chefs. He and the other chef-owner were working together in the newly-established restaurant. They were both full of enthusiasm and energy.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned this dining establishment was a bring-your-own-bottle place. I had asked my husband to run out for wine while I was in sessions that afternoon. “Just get some good red,” I instructed. “Italians love red wine.”

Risley finally arrived by cab, whisking through the door with panache. We ordered appetizers and pulled out our bottles of red wine.

Risley: “Oh, Giuliano doesn’t drink red wine. He likes white. I’m not drinking at all tonight.”

Bugialli: “I’ll have water.”

The appetizers were served.

Bugialli: “Duck confit too drrrrrrrry.” As he rolled his tongue around the word “dry.”

Risley: “Risotto shouldn’t be served in a martini glass.”

Me: “Please pass the bottle of wine.”

The five of us had a nice visit over a meal that certainly satisfied my taste-buds. Hobbins smiled pretty for her picture with Giuliano.

It was an evening I’ll always remember with a smile.

This seems like a long lead-in to a recipe for risotto. But the risotto I share is an adaptation of one of Giuliano Bugialli’s recipes. He suggests serving it as a first course. I serve it as an entree or a side. I most certainly do not serve it in a martini glass.

Risotto is a classic northern Italian dish, most often made with starchy, short-grain Arborio rice. The raw rice is first sauteed in hot fat, either olive oil or butter. Hot, rich broth and maybe some wine is gradually added to the pan. As the rice cooks it quickly absorbs the hot liquid, and must be stirred almost constantly to prevent sticking or burning, until it becomes a creamy, almost pudding-like dish. The cooked rice maintains a firm, chewy texture. I’ve had risotto studded with bits of cooked winter squash that is simply sublime. Recently, I made risotto with crumbled and cooked Italian sausage. And, I do love it just creamy, chewy and unadorned.

On a recent visit to Vinaigrette, my favorite oil and vinegar store in Minneapolis, I purchased a large bottle of their new Italian Herb Blend Olive Oil. I used this oil to saute chopped onion and the Arborio rice. Any large pot will due when making risotto, but I like to use my clay Cazuela that I purchased from Clay Coyote a couple of years ago.

My risotto didn’t turn out as creamy as some, maybe because I use much less fat than most recipes call for. I can just hear Giuliano Bugialli roll his tongue as he exclaims, “Risotto too drrrrrrrry.”  I think it is just perfect.

After a Google search, I’ve discovered that tiny little restaurant on West Armitage, Bonsoiree, is still in business and very respected. In fact, some say it is the best restaurant in Chicago. It looks like the building has new windows with not a trace of graffiti. The exuberant and proud former Soldier Field chef who seated us that night is still there. Luke Creagan is Bonsoiree’s Chef de Cuisine. And now, I’m really grinning!

Risotto (with a smile)

  • 1 cup Arborio rice, uncooked
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 6 to 8 ounces of crumbled sweet Italian sausage, if using
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups hot chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add the sausage (if using) and onions and saute until meat is cooked and onion is translucent.

Add the rice to the pan. Stir well to coat the grains with the oil, but do not allow the rice to brown. Add the wine and stir until it is completely absorbed. Add the hot broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently. Wait until the broth is absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup portion.

After approximately 20 minutes, all the broth should be incorporated and the rice should be cooked al dente, tender but still a little chewy. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tablespoon butter and the grated Parmesan. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

3 thoughts on “I’m Smiling Now Risotto

  1. Somehow food that can be served with a story always tastes better. I loved your story and the recipe you’ve shared with us. Your risotto looks beautiful. I hope you have a great day. Blessings…Mary

    • Thanks, Mary. As the years go by, more and more of my recipes seem to be served with a story attached. Always good memories!

  2. I am fortunate to have taken two one-week courses with Giuliano in Florence and a traveling course to Sicily. I have learned so much from him! You describe him perfectly! His phrase for something that did not come out perfect or for eating pasta with a spoon (a no no) or for Parmesan cheese over seafood or mushroom sauces was always “revolting and disgusting”. I am very fond of him, deep down he’s a lovely person maybe a little temperamental…but aren’t all Italians?

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