Americans think of squid and its ink as the essential ingredients to make the black sauce that is served in Venice with polenta, risotto, or pasta. But Francesco points out that the sea creature with the most ink is the cuttlefish, which is a little larger than squid. Many fish markets sell cleaned squid; some sell cuttlefish. If cuttlefish is not available squid can be substituted. Lately, some specialty food stores have started carrying little packets of cuttlefish ink to use for making these recipes. "I don't entirely trust them," Francesco says. "I'm not sure what they have put in those packets."
"In different regions of the North, we have different kinds of polenta," Francesco explains. "In Bergamo they make it very firm. In Venice it's often white, madewith white cornmeal, whichi s more refined but takes longer to cook. Polenta is really food for the poor. In poor families with lots of children you would be served a big polenta for dinner with one sausage sitting in the middle." Francesco also says that most people make polenta starting with boiling water. You can also start it in cold water, which is easier,"but you have to bring it to a boil very fast." he says. Use a little less water if the polenta is meant to be firmer so it can be spread ina pan, allowed to cool, then cut in rectangles to grill or saute.
It is essential to peel and mash the potatoes while they are very hot because you want them to be light and floury, not gluey," Francesco points out. He prefers Idaho potatoes for these lovely cloudlike gnocchi because they have a very dry texture. To retain the starch he does not peel them before boiling them.
These richly flavored yet delicate gnocchi are typical of dishes from the region around Venice. The recipe that follows is one that Dario Plozer, one of Francesco's sous chefs, learned from his mother in Udine. "A dish like this is a frustration for me," Francesco says. "It's really too delicate to make in a restaurant and should be prepared at home."
Waverly Root, author of The Food of Italy, wonders whether this simple yet sumptuous creation is a soup or a vegetable dish. Called risi e bisi in Venetian dialect, it's more about peas than about rice, and is traditionally served on April 25, St. Mark's Day, when the first peas of the region appear in the Rialto market. They are expensive and not as flavorful as the ones that are available a little later. That is why Francesco says the dish is better later in the season, for the feast of the Redeemer, or Redentore, to celebrate the end of the plague in 1576. Purists insist on peas from Chioggia. The texture of the dish is rather soupy, thinner than the typical Venetian risotto allâ€™onda. "It's the only rice dish you can eat with a spoon," Francesco points out, "And the rice cannot be al dente."
The plum pearly, short-grain Italian rice grown in the Po Valley, which can absorb a quantity of liquid and become properly tender without falling apart, is essential for making risotto. Despite what some books say, no other kind of rice will do. "One of the first steps in making risotto is to choose your rice," says Francesco. This risotto is a delicate spring green, to celebrate the first asparagus of the season.
As an asparagus risotto suggests spring. So this mushroom risotto evokes autumn, when fragrant wild mushrooms, the damp earth still clinging to them, are brought by the basketful to market. Today, with the profusion of wild and cultivated exotic mushrooms in American markets (at increasingly reasonable prices) and elsewhere, this once elusively difficult Italian dish need not be reserved for dining out or a special occasion. If you cannot find fresh exotic mushrooms in your market, plan ahead. Buy plain white mushrooms, place them in a basket, uncovered, on the kitchen counter, and allow them to dry out and darken a bit for three to four days. Their flavor and color will intensify. Francesco advises cooking the mushrooms separately, then adding them to the risotto. "Cooking raw mushrooms in the risotto may give the dish a muddy flavor."
In Venice risotto is a religion that must be practiced daily, with careful attention paid to ritual. "Venetians insist that you need at least 10 years of experience to make a good risotto, and then be prepared to attend to it for 18 minutes," Francesco says. "You can't make a phone call." Instead of 10 years, take the time to tend the rice carefully, regulate the heat as the liquid is added, and keep stirring. This risotto, with its elegant burgundy color, balances the sweet richness of seafood with the temptingly bitter edge of radicchio. It is one of the glories of Francesco's repertory.
Black Risotto represents Venice at its most exotic. Pristine rice is turned shadowy and dark with the ink of a strange-looking sea crature. The taste is exotic too - briny, sweet, peppery, and rich, Francesco says that recently some chefs have made risotto with squid ink on top before serving. "That way the dish doesnt look like it came out of the crankcase of your car," he quips.
Starting in the 11th century, the spice trade with the EAst and with Africa enriched the coffers of the Venetian republic and its merchants. At one time there was an official Office of Saffron to control this precious spice, which comes from the stamens of the purple autumn crocus (three filaments per flower). Saffron may be assosciated with Spanish cooking, but it is also essential in the foods of northern Italy, where the saffron tinted risotto alla milanese is a classic example. In discussing the Venetian love of color, Alexandre Dumas pere asked in his Grande Dictionnaire de la Cuisine whether it was "to spices that we owe Titian's masterpieces" and answered, "I am tempted to believe it." Francesco's saffron risotto is seasoned with ginger and enriched with sea scallops for a voluptuous, golden dish. Despite its taste of the sea and its color, Francesco says it is modern rather than traditionally Venetian.