Rice is part of countless gastronomic cultures around the world, often considered a side dish. But Italians, and the Milanese in particular, cook it in a special way to grant it the status of main meal and call it risotto. The history of how this came to be, however, is a bone of contention between southern and northern Italians.
Although there seems to be a consensus regarding the name risotto having first appeared in the 1800s, there are two dominating theories when it comes to the origins of its recipe. The first contends that it originated in Sicily, when Arabs brought the combination of rice and saffron to the tables and where arancini (Sicilian savoury fried rice cakes) are still made using such saffron rice. But the second theory is preferred in the north, and contends that the dish was born in Milan in 1574 for a special occasion: the wedding banquet for the daughter of the craftsman responsible for the stained-glass windows of the Duomo.
The story goes that an apprentice of this craftsman, inspired by the golden colours they had been applying onto the Duomo’s windows, suggested that the rice served at the wedding party should be seasoned with saffron so that it would acquire a celebratory golden colour too. The suggestion was accepted and was a success among the guests, who loved both the presentation and the taste of such golden rice, before adopting the idea themselves. Nowadays, this golden rice is among the most typical food of northern Italy.
Irrespective of which theory is correct, it is easy to see why risotto gained vast popularity being versatile, simple to make, warming and filling. The typical Milanese recipe still includes saffron but also adds parmesan, butter, onions, stock (often chicken), and white wine. Although these ingredients are considered the base of Milanese risotto, most restaurants and chefs have their own variations, which may include mushrooms, seafood, fruit and even vodka.
Here is a list of places in Milan where you can get to know the risotto more intimately, from its traditional form to its modern varieties. Do keep in mind that many restaurants have seasonal menus that do not always include the Milanese risotto dish, so it is best to check their websites if heading there specifically for risotto. Booking in advance is strongly recommended.
Trattoria Masuelli S Marco. Recommended by The Guardian in 2015, this trattoria is a family-run restaurant that is proud of its traditions, so expect typical dishes including, of course, Milanese risotto. Sun-Mon 19.30-22.30; Tue-Sat 12.30-22.30.
Ratanà. More on the sophisticated side, this restaurant offers a combination of tradition and modernity. Although risotto is not always on the menu, it is known for converting rice sceptics into risotto lovers when it is. Mon-Sun 12.30-14.30 and 19.30-23.30.
Osteria del Binari offers the traditional Milanese risotto as well as a mushroom version. Its atmosphere is elegant but not too refined, with prices relatively low compared to the size of the portions. A good option for tourists in the Navigli area, but keep in mind that bookings are strongly recommended and must be made in Italian. Sun 12.30-15.30; Sun-Sat 19.30-23.00; Mon 12.30-18.00; Tue-Sat 08.00-18.00.
Osteria Conchetta. Also located in the Navigli area, this osteria offers several variations of risotto. Some include innovative ingredients such as vodka, or the pleasure of watching it being made right on your table, stirred inside a parmesan wheel. Mon-Sat 12.00-15.00 and 19.30-01.00.
Trattoria da Abele. A much simpler atmosphere than the others on the list, this small neighbourhood diner has a homemade approach and serves dinner only. The menu changes daily but three options of risotto will always be included: meat, fish and vegetarian. Tue-Sun 20.00-24.00.
Risoelatte. This restaurant in the centre of Milan makes you time-travel to a cosy home in the 1960s. Homey is also the menu here, which features homemade pasta and typical Milanese food, including risotto. Booking necessary. Mon-Sun 12.30-14.30 and 19.30-22.30.
Al Cantinone. Also in the centre of Milan, just behind the Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, it would be easy to dismiss this trattoria as a tourist-trap. Instead it is a good option for visitors who wish to try hearty and typical Milanese dishes. Its veal ossobuco with risotto alla Milanese is popular but the several variations of risotto on the menu make it hard for the undecided to pick just one. Mon-Sun 12.00-15.00 and 19.00-22.30.