7 Of LA's Best Risottos
Picture it. Milan, 1574. You're at a wedding banquet in the northern city-state. You sit down with friends and family for a traditional feast. Bruschetta. Wedding soup. Mushrooms stuffed with pine nuts, basil and black pepper. The courses keep coming. Then, a dish unlike anything you've seen before is set in front of you. It's a creamy rice porridge.
The rice, grown in Sicily, has just made its way 905 miles north. A young glassblower's apprentice, mocked by his peers for using too much saffron in his work, has decided to punk his critics. Sprinkling saffron into the rice served at his master's wedding is supposed to be a joke. Instead, the guests gobble it up. Whether they know it or not, they are witnessing the birth of risotto -- or its origin myth.
Today, risotto is prepared and served much as it was when it first appeared in recipes more than 200 years ago. Short-grain rice is paired with parmesan, butter and whatever the chef decides to throw in. Unlike other rice-based dishes, risotto must be constantly stirred during its preparation. The starch released by the softening rice gives the dish its thick, creamy texture.
One of the great things about risotto is its versatility. It goes with almost anything you can find, on land or in the sea. Los Angeles preserves risotto's heritage and combines it with the city's mishmash of cultures.
Founded by three brothers -- Giacomino, Calogero and Celestino Drago -- Il Pastaio translates to "The Pasta Maker." Among its selection of Carnaroli rice risottos, the risotto nero, a trove of calamari, shrimp and scallops in a black squid ink sauce, is popular. The risotto salsicce, featuring sausage, rosemary and Barolo wine, is our favorite. To give your meal an extra kick, opt for the seasonal truffle risotto (available with black truffles in the summer and white truffles in the winter), which you can order in a giant cheese wheel for an extra $20. There's also a risotto of the day. If that doesn't convince you, maybe Justin Bieber will. The star comes here so often, his favorite pasta dish -- a paccheri with pink sauce -- has been renamed for him.
400 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills. 310-205-5444.
Celestino Ristorante & Bar
Another Drago brothers enterprise, Celestino is unmistakable with its azure doorframe. The focus is on seafood and game but the menu also offers five risottos, including one with porcini mushrooms and Mascarpone cheese; one with red beets and goat cheese; one with aged balsamic vinegar and rosemary; a Venetian version with mixed seafood and squid ink sauce; and a saffron one that comes with a veal shank. A risotto with baby scallops and morel mushrooms is also available during summer.
141 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena. 626-795-4006.
Looking for Korean-Italian fusion cuisine? Concerto adds an Asian touch to Italian dishes with options like kimchi carbonara and Shanghai crab pasta. Concerto gives its seafood risotto a tang by adding garlic, basil and rosemary. The truffle risotto combines oyster mushrooms, mushroom pesto and truffles. For something sweeter, the pumpkin risotto is earthy and light. Concerto also makes several types of Korean fried rice with ingredients such as kimchi and bulgogi. The portions are hearty, so come hungry.
610 S. Serrano Ave., Koreatown. 213-738-0909.
In an alley in Old Pasadena, Cafe Santorini is easy to miss. It would be a shame if you did. Its airy, rooftop patio is a good spot to enjoy risotto with a Mediterranean twist. The restaurant specializes in seafood. Its red curry risotto is sweet and spicy thanks to black mussels, jumbo shrimp, clams, spinach, red onions and a rich curry sauce. Try the wild mushroom risotto with shallots for a mellower option. It'll go great with a specialty cocktail and a plate of crisp, warm miniature spanakopita.
64 W. Union St., Pasadena. 626-564-4200.
This Little Tokyo izakaya, an informal Japanese tavern, emphasizes sustainable seafood and produce. The uni risotto, one of Kinjiro's most beloved dishes, can usually be found on the specials menu. It's creamy and rich with all the umami of uni, and presented in a beautiful sea urchin shell.
424 E. 2nd St., Little Tokyo. 213-229-8200.
Faith & Flower
Faith & Flower is known for its rustic Cali cuisine. That doesn't mean the food isn't decadent. The vegetarian wild mushroom risotto pairs sweet herbs with a Parmigiano reggiano crisp. A fried egg tops the Carnaroli risotto, which is studded with with English peas and coated in a charred scallion pistou. Another risotto highlights the delicate flavors of tender Dungeness crab. Have your Italian rice with one of their throwback cocktails, maybe the English milk punch made with pineapple oleo-saccharum, rum, absinthe, nutmeg and and curdled milk. Live jazz amps up the Roaring Twenties vibe every Wednesday night.
705 W. 9th St., downtown L.A. 213-239-0642.
Chefs and owners Walter and Margarita Manzke focus on California French cuisine in this stunning space, first built for Charlie Chaplin in 1928 and once home to Campanile. While the menu changes daily, République's food remains consistently excellent. They usually have risotto on the menu during winter, and it's a good idea to order it when they do. Past rotations have included crab, truffle and wild mushrooms, and risotto nero.
624 S. La Brea Ave., La Brea. 310-362-6115.
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