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Tastes of Italy

My last dinner in Naples was at a Posillipo flat crammed with Giacomettis. The guests laughed at my adventures. Yes, they'd heard of Da Michele and Di Matteo but had never been. No, they don't venture much to Spaccanapoli. One old-masters dealer pulled me onto the terrace, with its glittering view of the bay. He squeezed my arm, pressed his lips to my ear, and whispered: "When I want a truly great pizza I hop on a plane to New York. Aaaah...cheesy! Crispy! Molto condimento!" Ouch. Poor pizza police.

RISOTTO The Veneto
After the opera buffa polemics of pizza, risotto seemed like a laid-back proposition. Dump rice in pot. Add ladlefuls of broth. Stir. And get a creamy, unmistakably northern Italian baby food for grown-ups—with some scampi or trufþes thrown in as a bonus. Simple?Maybe not.

Unlike pizza, which is indelibly tied to Naples, risotto flourishes throughout the flat plains of the northern Po River delta. I could have headed to any of the pockets of Lombardy, the Veneto, or Piedmont where Italian rice production is concentrated. Piedmontese risotto tends to be dense, but in the Veneto they make theirs all'onda—sublimely soupy and runny. That settled it.

My research kicked off in Venice at Fiaschetteria Toscana, which despite its name is as Venetian as Sansovino's ornate façades. Here I feasted on a resolutely Venetian risotto called go e bevarase, laced with sweet morsels of clams and enriched by a broth scented with go, a flavorful lagoon fish. The risotto startled me. While perfectly soupy and loose, it was hardly creamy. The effect was aristocratic, slightly aloof—an endearing, savory rice pudding this wasn't. The secret?Aged organic Carnaroli rice, called Acquerello, from a small Piedmontese producer.

Risotto represents a singularly Italian way with rice. Broth is fed to the grain poco a poco, while stirring teases out starch, creating a sauce. This time-honored method exploits the particular proportion of starches in Italian rice. Each kernel's interior is composed of amylose, a sturdy starch that remains al dente. Meanwhile, its pearlescent shell of amylopectin "melts" into that ethereal environment. The grail of serious risotto chefs is rice with the perfect union of those two starches.

To Mara and Maurizio Martin of Venice's seafood temple Osteria da Fiore, that perfect grain is a Carnaroli from Riso Principe, a riseria near Pavia. As I ate the Martins' risotto I registered that the Principe grains—threaded with slippery bits of scampi and porcini—were springier than the Acquerello. "Venetian risotto is a precise affair. One misstep," said Maurizio, "and it's ruined. It must be cooked in a squat pot for exactly seventeen minutes, and stirred continuously with a wooden spoon."

"Stirring continuously?This will give you mashed potatoes instead of risotto!" exclaimed the city's other risotto maestro, Cesare Benelli of Al Covo. Benelli recovered enough to wax ecstatic about the glories of Venetian risottos. The autumnal version, yellow with pumpkin. The risotto di secoe, unctuous with delectable bits of beef spine. The risotto al nero di seppia con piselli, which plays the marine fragrance of cuttlefish ink against the sweetness of peas. "But don't," he admonished, "don't overstir!"

My palate educated by days of eating nothing but risotto, I drove to Riseria Ferron, a 1650 rice mill among the paddies of Isola della Scala, a rice-growing village near Verona. The Ferron family's organic, underpolished riso ai pestelli is the current "it" rice of the Veneto. Visitors can observe its bran layers being hulled away by mechanized wooden pestles pounding into enormous stone bowls. It's quite a sight.

In his dining room­-cum-­exhibition kitchen overlooking the rice fields, Gabriele Ferron swaggered before a Swedish group, a Japanese couple, and me, demonstrating his iconoclastic risotto technique. He dumped rice in a pot. He added broth all at once. He didn't stir! The rice simmered away undisturbed as Ferron cooked rice-flour pasta and rice-flour polenta. (Someone say monoculture?) Twenty minutes later, presto! A perfectly correct risotto. The Japanese couple gasped, and bowed to no one in particular.

PASTA ALL'UOVO Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna
Dodge Milan; bypass Bologna. For the best of traditional Italian cooking, you must go to the towns of central Italy. Flush, self-content, and largely untouristed, Mantua and Modena were the ideal targets for my pasta quest.

The starch that reigns in Italy's center is fresh pasta all'uovo, incomparably rich dough made from one farm-fresh egg per 100 grams of low-gluten flour—a formula sacred to every Italian matriarch. This is dough rolled into a sfoglia (sheet) so thin you can read a newspaper through it, and then cut into tagliatelle and tagliolini or shaped into a vast array of dumplings: cappelletti and cappellacci, tortelli in Parma and Mantua, tiny tortellini in Bologna and Modena. Despite the seeming ubiquity of egg pasta, its production is becoming a rarefied skill threatened by, among other things, the changing social realities of Italian women, labor costs, and the European Union's food safety regulations. Today it is maintained by grand restaurants but has almost vanished from homes, and increasingly from cheaper trattorias and markets as well.

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