The magic that is risotto, a creamy and flavorful rice concoction from Italy, begins with a simple "noce de burro" -- a "walnut" of butter.
Chef and restaurateur Gino Giolitti uses a huge metal spoon to scoop the butter from its container and into the heavy aluminum skillet.
"There's no one person who says, 'This is how you do risotto,' " he says. "Venetians do it one way, Genoese do it another way, Romans do it another way. . . . However, for the average person who is cooking a risotto, the preparation method is really the same. You start off with butter and whatever ingredient you're going to use."
It is surprisingly cold this early in the morning in the kitchen of the trattoria -- a family-style restaurant -- Mr. Giolitti and his wife Mary own and run in Annapolis, though he's in jeans and shirt sleeves, and a red and white striped apron bearing the restaurant's name, "La Piccolo Roma."
Mr. Giolitti has made espresso, and while he drinks it he explains that risotto, while it always contains rice and flavorings, has many incarnations. He pulls out "the Bible of Italian cooking," a huge volume called "The Talisman of Happiness," by Ada Boni, which lists about 60 different preparations.
Today, however, Mr. Giolitti is going to demonstrate how he makes the sublime risotto with wild mushrooms that is one of the young restaurant's most popular dishes.
"I use both cremini and porcini mushrooms. The cremini mushrooms I use in all my sauces. They're prepped ahead of time, washed very well and cut up and sauteed in a little bit of olive oil, some garlic, a splash of white wine, and some herbs -- whatever herbs you like. I put in basil, sage, parsley and just a tiny pinch of oregano. You have to be very careful with oregano or it will get bitter on you. In northern-type cooking, you use
oregano very, very sparsely."
Mr. Giolitti's family has been in the restaurant business for just over a century; and that is how he learned to cook. Today, he says, they are probably most famous for their ice cream shops and cafes in Rome. The family also serves as pastry chef to the Vatican.
The name of his place means "a little slice of Rome," and as he describes it, it was created by going back to Rome to collect the furniture and decorations -- and to slice off a large chunk of family tradition.
Mr. Giolitti, who was born and raised in Rome, joined the U.S. Navy and was a member of a S.E.A.L. team. He came to the United States in 1981. Mary Giolitti trained with a pastry chef in Denver and ran her own catering business there and on the East Coast. She makes all the desserts for La Piccolo Roma, and soon will be baking breads and making desserts for the restaurant and the public at a new, "truly Italian" deli, Giolitti Delicatessen, the two plan to open sometime in April in Parole.
As the butter melts in the skillet -- the pan looks rather lonely sitting on one of the 16 burners on two huge side-by-side Vulcan stoves -- Mr. Giolitti finishes his espresso.
"If you like mushrooms, you can buy a pound, or a couple of pounds, and saute them up and keep them in your icebox for a week. You can use them in risotto or any other kind of dish, and they're great by themselves, just to accompany a meal.
"The porcini are dry. You have to soak them in water, wash them out very well, and then I drain them very well and pack them in good olive oil."
Into the melted butter goes perhaps half a cup of prepared
cremini, and "a good tablespoon or so" of the porcini.
"I'm going to saute this just a couple of minutes," he says. "You don't want to burn the butter, all you really want to do is just pick up the flavor of the mushrooms."
The next step is a special touch Mr. Giolitti uses to give "a little bit of bite" to the risotto: He flambees the mushrooms in brandy. "That's one of the subtle differences -- you can change this all the time. You can use a little anise on shrimp, you can use the different liqueurs that you like that'll give you different tastes. Grand Marnier does a beautiful job with shrimp.
"It gives you just an edge. You're not sure what it is, but that's it. Let the alcohol burn off, and that's when I add my rice.
"You want a short-grained rice," he explains. "If you can find the arborio, that's wonderful. Arborio is extremely expensive and not necessary for a risotto. It does come out nicer, it's the actual rice to use." But any short-grained, full-starch rice will work, he says.
He reaches for the rice. "I make about three handfuls per person, which I figure is about half a cup. It's going to double in size. Just let it saute and pick up the flavor of the mushrooms and the butter. You just let it cook for a little while. You'll know when it's enough -- you don't want to burn the rice, you don't want to start seeing it turn brown. And if it starts popping on you, you definitely know you've gone too long."
Mr. Giolitti is in constant motion, stirring with that huge spoon, shaking the skillet, tossing the risotto almost as if it were a pancake.