Risotto Alla Milanese

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LA DUCHESSA – The Play’s the Thing!

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Buon giorno!

A well made risotto is one of the wonders of Italian cuisine. Some like to use Carnaroli Rice – some like Arborio Rice – some like Vialone Nano, all short grain varieties. No matter which you choose, there is no denying that risotto is a memorable dish. Of all the different recipes for risotto, one sparkles for me like a perfectly cut canary gem. That is RISOTTO ALLA MILANESE. I like to give things names, so I shall call this one “La Duchessa”!

Whether served along side another dish or on its own, this risotto is a star. It is most often thought of as an accompaniment to the great Milanese favorite, Osso Buco. In my way of thinking, there is no better pairing of passion in all of Italian cuisine than this one. These star crossed lovers are symbiotic and play off one another in a perfectly directed one act play on the plate. Not only do the flavors of these two dishes compliment one another, but the visual is tantalizing. That stately veal shank prominently floating like an ocean liner, adorned with the tiny “flags” of gremolata, is only enhanced by the sunlit presence of this golden risotto. The colors are shockingly vivid. The aroma seduces as the sirens of mythology with flavors delivering a celestial triumph. Who could resist such splendor?

RISOTTO ALLA MILANESE dates as far back as the 1500’s from the Northern Italian region of Lombardia and is credited to the beautiful city of Milan. Its origins are said to come from the Sabbath Rice of the Venetian Jews.

Its simplicity makes it special: La Duchessa (the duchess) indeed! While it may smack of opulence and pomp, this risotto only appears theatrical and dramatic. It actually plays out simply, with very few ingredients, each significant to its elegant nature. When unnecessary extras are added to this brilliant dish, it falls flat. As always, the Italians know best – stick to simplicity, follow the script, and it will not disappoint.

Why the golden color? The beautiful golden color comes from the addition of Saffron threads.


But why use them? In centuries past, much of the food of Milan was actually prepared with flakes of real gold. It was considered a mark of wealth and position to use gold in food. In modern days, real gold being cost prohibitive, has been replaced with Saffron which emits the golden hue without breaking the bank! The Saffron threads are transformative to this dish.

Something different: It is not uncommon to use marrow in this risotto which brings even more richness. The marrow is the character no one expects, but provides the most surprise when introduced. Its use is optional but is another reason why the dish plays so well with the lovely marrow bones of its fellow Thespian in this performance, Osso Buco.

My preferences: I choose Arborio Rice because it is just easier – cooks faster and does the job every time. Very often, when I make risotto, I like to use Dry Vermouth instead of wine. I just like the flavor. This is one of those recipes where I appreciate the Vermouth a little more. I also like the use of shallots rather than onion in this one. The shallots are mild and sweet. For me, the flavors should all blend in this risotto, without any one of them taking center stage. Think of it as an “ensemble cast”.

Act I The players enter…


Serves: 4-6

Prep: 8 minutes

Cook: 20-30 minutes


2 1/2 c. Arborio Rice

5 Tbsp. Butter

1 Tbsp. Olive Oil

1 Whole Shallot – chopped

(1 oz. bone marrow – optional)

1/2 c. Dry Vermouth or Dry White Wine

6 c. chicken broth – warmed (sometimes you need a little more so plan an extra cup just in case)

Large Pinch of Saffron threads

2 Tbsp. Unsalted butter

2/3 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

Fresh Parsley for garnish


Keep broth warm in pan on the stove. Remember, to always used warm/hot broth to your risotto so that the temperature of the rice does not drop.


Crush the Saffron threads between your fingers and add them to the warm broth to dissolve. Don’t worry if they don’t dissolve completely.

In a large wide pan, melt butter and add chopped shallot. Cook about 3 minutes.

Then add your rice and cook, stirring, another 5 minutes.

Pour in the Vermouth or wine and cook another minute or two letting it cook down some.

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You will now begin the technique of adding your warm broth slowly to the risotto pan, first with one cup, letting it absorb – and then slowly by about 1/2 cup as each previous addition of broth is absorbed by the rice.

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It is important to do this slowly, letting each addition of broth cook in before adding the next. Continue to do this until you use all or most of your broth and your risotto is tender and creamy.

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When the risotto is just tender to the bite, turn off your heat. Let it sit for a minute or two and then add the butter, letting it melt in, followed by the grated cheese. Garnish with a little fresh Flat Leaf Parsley.


The players exit and the curtain closes…


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Food Photos By Tommy Hanks Photography

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  1. This was so delicious , that I had left overs for breakfast!