There is a lot of bad risotto in the UK. There are a lot of average plates of it too.
One of the worst I encountered was at Carluccio’s. The restaurant chain’s founder, the late Antonio, had long since parted ways with the brand, and I’ve no doubt he would have struggled with it as I did had he still been in charge. It was “wild mushroom”, apparently. A joyless mess.
Risotto is generally either overworked or sloppy. It is a misunderstood dish – one of the most misunderstood dishes around. The risotto scene in the cult classic Big Night might have been set in 1950s New Jersey, but it often rings true today; customers still find risotto puzzling. Few dishes exemplify Italy’s culinary simplicity and grace better than risotto.
Alarm bells ring if risotto comes out in a bowl, more gloopy porridge than creamy, silky rice. Like an omelette, risotto is easy to cook but hard to cook well. Timing is everything and most kitchens don’t have that. And so it’s either reheated or, worse, emptied out of a bag and warmed up to a maleficent stodge.
I once worked at a pub where the risotto was lovingly prepared before being lazily cast aside. Early diners might’ve had a decent serving, but anyone in later must’ve either never had good risotto or been left disgruntled.
Good risotto can be found. The Italian chef Francesco Mazzei once cooked me one on a roof, and it was transportive. If it appears on the menu at Bocca di Lupo in Soho, or at Locanda Locatelli – exhaustingly priced but memorable – then it would be wisely ordered.
My favourite of all time in the UK was a tomato risotto made by Angela Hartnett of Murano. Astonishingly delicious. One of those moments with food that brings a sudden jolt of bountiful happiness.
And here we have a recipe from an unassuming Italian haunt close to Tower Bridge. It has not been open all that long, but has already made an impression. Head chef Matt Beardmore combines risotto with a generous amount of mussels here, and the dish is well worth the effort. Mussels are in season so make the most of them.
Serves 4 as a starter
6 cloves garlic
2 large shallots
2 bay leaves
250g risotto rice (carnaroli or similar)
400ml white wine
1 tsp dried wild oregano
½ tsp crushed dried chilli (or adjust to taste)
100ml olive oil
Salt to taste
Juice of half a lemon
½ bunch parsley, chopped
Begin by cleaning the mussels. Pick through them and remove the beards, discarding any broken ones or ones that aren’t tightly closed. If they are slightly open, give them a gentle tap, they should close up if they are alive.
Give them a good rinse in a large bowl of cold water, drain off the water and repeat 2 or 3 times until the water is clear, then drain in a colander.
Add a good drizzle of olive oil to a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, and place on a medium heat. Gently crush 2 of the garlic cloves under the palm of your hand and add to the oil. Gently fry the garlic for 2-3 minutes or until it just before it begins to brown, then add the bay leaves. Tip in all the mussels, turn the heat up to high and add half of the white wine. Put the lid on and steam the mussels for 4-5 minutes, until the mussels have all opened, stir once or twice during cooking to ensure they cook evenly.
Empty the entire contents of the pan into a colander with a bowl underneath to catch all the liquid and set aside.
Pick the mussels out of the shells and set aside, then strain the liquid through a j-cloth or muslin to remove any grit.
Finely slice one of the garlic cloves into a small pan and add enough olive oil to just cover it.
Over a very low heat, gently infuse the oil with the garlic for 2-3 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.
Finely chop the shallots and 3 cloves of garlic and add to a heavy-based saucepan with the remaining olive oil. Over a low heat, gently sweat them down for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until they are very soft but not taking on any colour.
Turn the heat up to medium and add the rice to the pan. Toast off the rice for 2-3 minutes, using a wooden spoon to stir constantly, then add the remaining white wine.
Cook off the wine for another 1-2 minutes – this is very important so that the alcohol cooks off and you aren’t left with a very “winey” flavour at the end.
Now begin to add the mussel stock, one small ladle at a time, stirring constantly, but gently with a wooden spoon to ensure the rice cooks evenly but not to break up the grains. When the rice has absorbed the stock, add another ladle and repeat the process until the rice is cooked or all the stock has been used, but reserve one ladle full for later.
The rice should have a slight bite to it, but this is a personal preference. If you run out of stock before the rice is cooked you can finish cooking it with some water.
Add half of the butter to the risotto and season with salt to taste. Adjust the consistency if needed by adding a splash more stock/water. The risotto should have an “oozy” consistency.
Place a lid on the risotto to keep warm.
In another pan add the mussels, the garlic-infused oil, the remaining butter, the remaining stock, oregano and chilli. Gently heat through to melt the butter, stirring constantly. The sauce should emulsify and thicken up. Add the lemon juice to taste, a pinch of salt if needed and the chopped parsley.
Serve up the risotto and spoon the mussels and sauce over the top.