Guest post by Anthony Damelio (we call him Tony), Sharon’s fiancé.
I love making risotto: not just the possible ingredients or the finished product but also, and perhaps most importantly, the process. Growing up, I watched my father prepare it often for formal occasions and normal dinners alike, and so I make it as much as possible, especially when a special meal comes around.
One time, though, my penchant for risotto failed me miserably. I was living with six others in Tucson, Arizona, and it was late June in the desert—not a cool place to be. My housemates and I had a special meal to prepare for the new pastor at our church who was coming over. I scanned the pantry shelves, found some Arborio rice that needed to be used, and remembered an online recipe I had seen for strawberry risotto. Since we had some frozen bags of ripe strawberries, I thought I’d had a divine revelation: a fruity yet savory dish to be served on a hot desert evening.
Wow, was I wrong. Being a devotee of good risotto, I was appalled at the finished product. It was lacking in depth, the strawberries were flavorless and out of place, and the hot rice didn’t exactly soothe our sweating foreheads. It wasn’t a bad recipe, per se; the dish just tanked, especially alongside some other significant lapses in culinary judgment (ask me later about the gooey, poorly fried okra). Needless to say, I was embarrassed.
Part of me was so ashamed because I love making risotto for other people, something almost hard-wired into my culinary limbic system. When I was growing up, my father would often start the risotto process just as guests began to arrive, so that he could entertain in the kitchen. My dad, a gregarious Italian-American, loves to cook with and for people, especially Italian-inspired food. For him, risotto was a great way to keep the party going around the stove while he continued to cook. Plus, risotto doesn’t require much technical prep or complicated presentation work.
The actual hard work comes from sticking to the process, something my father reveres. To start, he makes sure the extra virgin olive oil is hot and then begins sautéing his onions. Right before they caramelize, he adds the garlic and the rice (to toast it), before deglazing with a good splash of white wine. Then, making sure the stock is ready to go, he adds it one ladle at a time. (Sometimes I get lazy and add two at a time so I can run do something else around the kitchen, but usually my father is more patient). At this point, there’s no turning back. You have to keep stirring constantly so the rice doesn’t stick. Usually he would press me into service at this point, making sure I wouldn’t stop stirring. You have to resist the urge to turn the heat up and rush it; the rice will do its magic—give off that lovely creaminess—and will be ready with its last touches of Parmigiano and a pad of butter.
When you’re finally done stirring and you taste the first bite, you can always tell a risotto that’s been tended with care and love. I’ve made many different risottos in my life; and though I’m always eager to try new ingredients, my strawberry debacle haunts my culinary dreams, chastening any bold plans I might have. Thus, I often fall back on the timeless ingredients—seared shrimp, champagne, simple saffron—though my favorite is wild mushroom, made with dried mushrooms and saffron broth. But no matter the ingredients, I always try to model my father’s techniques, both in the dish and with the guests.
I love how well you describe your dad, Tony. It’s just so true! “a gregarious Italian-American who loves to cook with and for people.” I’ve been fortunate enough to share the kitchen with your dad. He’s brimming with knowledge about food and wine and can’t wait to share it with you. The next time we’re together, I think I’m going to ask him for a risotto lesson. Although, I’ve had your risotto and you’d make your father proud.
p.s. Thank you for sharing your risotto-fail story. It always helps to hear a cook I respect share their stories, good and bad 🙂
I learned the basics of risotto from my mom, but I learned to love risotto from you, Tony. It’s this incredible ritual, and I am glad to know this ritual has a history.
I love the slow, steady process. I love that you have to be committed. I love that you have to believe in it, and that when it turns out well…it’s simply ethereal.
What do you say? Let’s try strawberry risotto again someday. I bet we could make it good. As you said the other night…”When have we ever made something we couldn’t fix?”
You’re a lucky guy, Tony. Most culinary traditions are handed down by mothers. So it’s extra special to see your father passing the wooden spoon to the next generation of risotto stirrers.
Anthony (and you will always be Anthony), I too have been in the kitchen with your Dad and the risotto and the wine. I have even stirred the pot a few times, so to speak.
When I read Maggy’s comment about Tony (your Dad) brimming with knowledge about food and wine that he can’t wait to share, I thought of my Irish-Jewish-American Mother who often reminded me to believe none of what I hear and only half of what I see!
SMITH BITES says
This is the kind of story that warms my heart – the love of a father, love of a son, one passing a tradition on to the other and the other understanding the care and attention of the father – full circle moment! I’d say you’re all quite lucky to have each other AND I’d also say that we’re quite lucky to be the recipients of such love and talent – looking forward to more from you Tony and welcome to the family!
Amber | Bluebonnets & Brownies says
I love love love risotto, but I’m not the most patient of people. I think I’ve found the error of my ways with your story, Tony. I need to stop and remember it’s about the process. Thank you for sharing this lovely story with us. I hope we get to hang out more in 2011!
I have a soft spot for men who cook. Now I more clearly understand where you get your love of cooking.
I am a latecomer to the risotto party. Having grown up in a country where rice is a staple (we have fried rice and meat for breakfast), my meals almost always featured rice either in porridge, steamed, or fried. Or alongside sushi. Or in the Filipino version of rice krispie treats. My introduction to risotto came late, and it wasn’t memorable. The rice, I thought, was undercooked and the dish was too starchy. I longed for my usual bowl of steamed Jasmine rice.
Then I finally tasted proper risotto. All of sudden, everything made sense.
I loved reading this post and picturing you and your father cooking together. Hope we hear more from you! Can’t wait to try your recipe.
I’m in awe of your dad’s food and wine knowledge, Tony. I’m so glad he passed it on to you and that you were a willing student. Our family is the happy recipient.
I love cooking with you. Not only are you a savvy cook, you load a dish washer and clean a kitchen better than anyone I know. I look forward years and years of good times in the kitchen (and at the dinner table) with you and Sharon. And please keep sharing your father’s kitchen wisdom with us. What’s next? Gnocchi maybe?
Torrie @ a place to share... says
This story, tradition, and all of the lovely comments are incredibly heart-warming. What a family unit you are! I can only imagine being at your table, enjoying a meal that all of you created!
Mike V @ DadCooksDinner says
What? Italian? After hearing about the great Mexican feast you prepared? I’m flabbergasted.
Um, give me a few minutes, I have this sudden craving for risotto…
What can I say, Mike V, this man is international! He (along with his able partner) can make pretty mean Indian too!
sally johnson says
Well, I just never really knew what risotto was until fairly recently!! Quahog chowder yes, risotto no. But thanks to you I now know and even might attempt to make it. Thanks, Tony.
uncle tony says
As always I am humbled by my son’s words and fond memories. In the last analysis, it is all about family time- whether it is watching a sporting event, playing catch with a baseball, or cooking together.
AS far as the risotto recipe, Anthony forgot to mention that you must stir the pot for as long as it takes to consume the rest of the white wine you used in the recipe and a head start on noble italian red
“When you’re finally done stirring and you taste the first bite, you can always tell a risotto that’s been tended with care and love.”
I always tell my family you can taste the love, care and time in food and they look at me like I’m nuts!
Georgia Pellegrini says
I always love how risotto smells like home and tastes heavenly