We carry several different types of Italian rices that may be used in many preparations, risotto being the most famous. Which type of rice you choose depends on several factors which may seem confusing. Your recipe, your tradition and personal preference will help you make a selection, however, choosing one rice and not the other is a minor in the big picture. All of the Italian varieties belong to the same family of short, starchy rices.
Italians use rices derived from the japonica strain of rice, often called ‘sticky rice’ in Japan (in fact, you could probably make a passable risotto using sushi rice). All Italian rices are characterized by their small grain size and high starch content but they vary slightly in grain size and starchiness. They all have the ability to create a creamy broth during cooking (due to the release of the amylopectin starch), absorb a large amount of liquid and stay firm in the center (the amylose starch at the center of the grain remains unchanged after cooking). The difference is in the degree to which they do each of these things. At Piazza we have the arborio, carnaroli, originario, vialone nano, and vialone nano lavorato con pestelli varieties.
Arborio has a medium size grain, and a very high concentration of starch in its grains, which allow it to absorb a large amount of broth while its center remains “al dente”. “Al dente” translates as “to the tooth”, indicating that it still has texture–risotto should not be cooked like baby food. The crop yield of arborio rice is fairly high compared to other strains making this rice more easy to find in the US. In fact, many cookbooks will call for arborio rice because it used to be the only Italian rice available!
Carnaroli has a relatively large grain for the Italian varieties, therefore it is able to absorb the most liquid and keep its core (“la perla”) firm. Many professional chefs in Italy and in the US prefer this variety of rice because it so clearly reflects the flavors you add to it.
Originario has the smallest grain of all the Italian rices. This is the ‘native’ strain of Italian rice, this is the rice that your great-grandmother would have eaten. This strain has less amylose starch at its center so when it cooks it becomes really creamy and soft throughout. Today this variety of rice is used for arancini (fried, stuffed rice balls from Sicilia), sweet puddings and soups.
Vialone Nano is a small grain rice (nano means small in Latin) with the highest amylose content of all the Italian varieties. Vialone nano also boasts the fastest cooking time of all the Italian varieties, (cooking time being the time it takes to make the starches creamy), at just under 17 minutes. It is the most popular variety used in the Veneto region and often used for soups as well as risottos. The famous dish using vialone nano rice is risi e bisi, a kind of loose risotto with spring peas.
At Piazza we also have a Vialone Nano rice that has been Lavorato con Pestelli, worked with pestels. Historicially all rices were processed using large wooden pestels to pound the husks off the grain (think mortar and pestel) and this method is still practiced at the Gazzani company. The standard practice today is to separate the hull from the rice grain mechanically using gentle heat as a facilitator. Like for pressing olives for oil, some feel that the use of heat degrades the flavor of the rice. Also, the mechanical separation of the hull from the rice polishes away the natural texture of the rice. We have some of the natural vialone nano grains in a clear container on the shelf so you can see the small ridges on the grains. Also, the pounding on rice breaks and chips the grains a little but, in a delicate dish like risotto, those little ridges offer a pleasant texture.
Rice was available in Italy as early as the Roman empire but it wasn’t popular until the height of the Republic of Venice, 1000-1300 AD, and by 1475 rice was a major crop in northern Italy. Early on rice was viewed as a luxurious food with medicinal purpose, like chicken soup or congee it was used to relieve a chill or revive an upset stomach. As the Venetian merchant class grew during the middle ages they began to use rice more flamboyantly, preparing it with rosewater, cinnamon, or with almonds like they had seen in Arabic-speaking countires. These sweet dishes were usually cooked in a method similar to the way risotto is made today. At roughly the same time, the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples welcomed rice from Arab Spain and began to create baked and fried rice dishes like timballo and arancini. Today, 90% of the rice in Italy is grown in three cities; Novara (Piemonte), Vercelli (Piemonte), and Pavia (Lombardia). If you drive from Milano to the Piemonte you might see these huge fields full of water and rice shoots.
Before WWII, risotto was a dish reserved for holidays or Sunday supper. Today it has become a fixture in many northern households and a staple in many osterie and ristorante. The same is true in southern Italy, complicated rice dishes that take the extra time to prepare are now common place in tavola calde and panini bars in Sicily.
Now it is possible to find excellent rices in Easton for all your Italian recipes just come to Piazza, tell us what you are making and we will help you pick the best rice for the job.