Technique: Sotto Sotto’s Riccardo Ullio on making risotto

Small things are the key to perfecting this creamy Italian staple
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Photograph by Patrick Heagney
Photograph by Patrick Heagney

“People make more of a big deal about cooking risotto than it actually is,” says Sotto Sotto’s Riccardo Ullio, who’s eaten this luxuriously creamy staple of northern Italy his whole life.

Making proper risotto comes down to the small things, starting with the type of rice you use. Unlike long-grain rice that cooks up light and fluffy, risotto rice contains a high proportion of sticky starch that turns creamy as it cooks. Arborio is the most commonly used variety, but Ullio prefers carnaroli, which holds its shape better because of its higher starch content. He keeps the burner at a medium-low heat from beginning to end and starts by toasting the kernels to release their starch. Unlike most recipes, which suggest raising the heat when you add the wine (a dry Italian white, preferably) and then dialing it down again, Ullio keeps the heat steady to avoid overcooking the kernels.

Early in the process, Ullio stirs only occasionally to prevent sticking, but he picks up momentum toward the end when the mixture thickens and forms “lava-like waves” as it’s stirred. When done, the risotto should be saucy but not soupy, with kernels that are tender and translucent throughout but still firm.

The Breakdown

0315_techniquestep01_jkimmel_oneuseonly1. Warm 6 cups of stock on the stove. In a saucepan, melt 1 Tbsp. butter over medium-low heat. Add ¼ cup chopped onion to butter and saute with a wooden spoon until translucent; do not brown.

0315_techniquestep02_jkimmel_oneuseonly2. Add 1 cup carnaroli to onions and saute for 2 minutes or until fragrant. Add ½ cup dry white wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated.

0315_techniquestep03_jkimmel_oneuseonly3. Add a ladleful of stock, stirring to prevent sticking. Once the rice has absorbed all of the liquid, add another ladleful and continue stirring. Repeat.

0315_techniquestep04_jkimmel_oneuseonly4. When mixture thickens and begins to form lava-like waves (all’onda), stir vigorously, sweeping your spoon in a circular motion around the edges of the pan and shaking the pan from side to side.

0315_techniquestep05_jkimmel_oneuseonly5. Risotto is done when kernels are translucent all the way through. Stir in another 1 Tbsp. of butter, and season with salt and pepper.

Pick a Pan
The ideal heavy-bottomed saucepan should fit the size of the burner to avoid hot or cold spots. The bottom shouldn’t be too wide, because the kernels need to rub against each other to create friction. Williams-Sonoma’s nonstick Hard-Anodized Copper Core Risotto Pan has a curved bottom and high sides that make for more efficient stirring.

Bonus recipe: Sotto Sotto’s Risotto ai Frutti di Mare

Ingredients
6 to 8 cups mixed shellfish stock (recipe follows) and chicken stock
3/4 to 1 pound mixed seafood (small clams, mussels—scrubbed and debearded—, peeled large shrimp, small to medium scallops, squid, cleaned and cut into rings)
1 cup carnaroli rice (arborio may also be used)
1/4 cup finely diced onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup dry white wine, preferably Italian
1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
Finely chopped parsley for garnish, optional

Instructions

1. Keep stock warm in a pot on the stove. Set a medium-size pan with a lid on another burner. Have seafood cleaned and ready to cook.

2. Set a heavy-bottomed saucepan on a burner the same size as the bottom of the pan. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and melt over medium-low heat. Add onion and saute until translucent. Do not let brown. Add the rice and saute for 2 minutes, until fragrant. Add wine; cook and stir until evaporated.

3. Add a ladleful of hot stock; cook and stir frequently until liquid is almost evaporated, taking care that it does not stick to the pan. Add another ladleful of stock; repeat as before. Continue adding stock and stirring until the rice is cooked but still al dente. (This should take about 4 cups of stock.)

4. Meanwhile, add a ladleful of stock to the medium-size pan; bring to a boil and add clams. Cover and let cook just until the clams are just opened. Remove to a dish. Repeat with mussels; remove and add to the dish. Cook remaining seafood, one at a time, in a little of the boiling liquid, until almost done. Remove to the dish. Add remaining juices to the stock.

5. When rice mixture thickens and begins to form lava-like waves (all ‘onda), stir vigorously, sweeping your spoon in a circular motion around the edges of pan and shaking the pan from side to side.

6. Risotto is done when kernels are translucent all the way through. Stir in another tablespoon of butter and (for seafood risotto) 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Season to taste with salt. Fold in cooked seafood; garnish with parsley, if desired, and serve hot.

Makes 2 main-course or 4 first-course servings

Seafood Stock

Ingredients
2 tablespoons olive oil
Shells from 1 pound large shrimp
2 cups chopped yellow onions (2 medium onions)
2 carrots, unpeeled and chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup tomato paste
2 quarts water

Instructions

1. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Add the shrimp shells, onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. Saute until tender and golden.

3. Add tomato paste; cook and stir a few more minutes, taking care that it does not burn.

4. Add water and simmer for 2 hours.

5. Strain, pressing all the solids to extract flavor.

Makes about 1 quart

0315_technique_rullio_jkimmel_oneuseonlyAbout Riccardo Ullio
In 1999 Ullio opened Sotto Sotto in Inman Park, a paean to the simple, rustic cuisine of his Italian heritage rooted near his birth city of Milan. Stuffed ravioli and bowls of chocolate soup helped establish the cozy trattoria, but the star has always been Ullio’s risotto. Creamy, supple, and al dente, his risotto is a revelation in texture—yet a source of angst for any home cook who has tried their hand at a pot.

Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.

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