Food & Culture

Risotto alla Milanese: anatomy of a dish

This culinary golden child is dialled up with another northern Italian specialty, osso buco.

By Maggie Scardifield
Where the south of Italy is known for its pasta, in the north, it's all about the rice. And risotto, when prepared alla Milanese, is about as simple and satisfying as it gets.
Simmered slowly with a combination of chicken or vegetable broth, white wine and saffron, and finished with butter, parmesan and the optional addition of bone marrow, the golden rice is up there with northern Italy's most celebrated dishes (Piedmont and Lombardy are Italy's main rice-growing regions, after all). Some say risotto alla Milanese is a descendant of Spain's paella, brought to northern Italy in 1535 with the Spanish rule. Others note that saffron flowers were being cultivated and traded in the late Middle Ages in northern Italy, and that in medieval Sicily, saffron pilaf was a popular dish among the Arabs and Venetian Jews.
While the origins of the dish are unclear, one thing is certain: right now, this creamy dish is perfect for feasting.

1. Rice

While plenty of cooks argue arborio rice has the right consistency when cooked or toasted, Italian author and cooking teacher Marcella Hazan proposed carnaroli is best for a creamier result. Just don't wash the rice.

2. Saffron

Brick-red threads of saffron are behind the yellow "gold" colour. The moment when the saffron is added, however, is open to interpretation. Elizabeth David in Italian Food preferred to pound the saffron to a powder, steep it in a cup of hot broth for five minutes, then add it at the very end of cooking. Others add the saffron with the stock at the beginning.

3. Accompaniments

The rice is rich, so often it's served as a standalone dish, but the classic accompaniment is osso buco, cooked "alla Milanese". Traditionally, the cut is from the hind shin of a milk-fed calf, and should be cut 5cm thick. It's then braised slowly with vegetables until the meat is spoon-tender, and the bone marrow is gelatinous. The only thing left to add to complete the dish is gremolata – a mixture of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest – for a lift of flavour and final flourish.

Where to find one

At Fratelli Paradiso in Sydney, the risotto alla Milanese is topped with a paper-thin saffron wafer. But when Fratelli's co-owner Giovanni Paradiso visits Milan, he heads to Rovello 18 for a more classic rendition.