Anatomy of a Dish: Risotto alla Milanese

The culinary 'golden child' that is risotto alla Milanese is classically served with another northern Italian specialty, osso buco. 

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Risotto alla Milanese | House and Leisure

The south of Italy is known for its pasta, but in the north, it's all about the rice. (Piedmont and Lombardy are Italy's main rice-growing regions, after all.) And risotto 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 Italy's most celebrated dishes.

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 Italy, and that in medieval Sicily, saffron pilaf was a popular dish among Arabs and Venetian Jews. While the origins of the dish are unclear, one thing is certain: right now, this creamy dish is perfect for autumnal feasting. 

Risotto alla Milanese: the Essential Elements


Brick-red threads of saffron are behind the yellow 'gold' colour of this dish. The moment when the saffron is added, however, is open to interpretation. In her book Italian Food, legendary food writer Elizabeth David suggests pounding the saffron to a powder, steeping it in a cup of hot broth for five minutes, then adding it at the very end of cooking. Others add the saffron with the stock at the beginning. 


Risotto alla Milanese is rich, so often it's served as a standalone dish. But the classic accompaniment is osso buco, also 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. To complete the dish, add gremolata – a mixture of parsley, garlic and lemon zest – for a lift of flavour and final flourish. 


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

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