The Italian Lake District stretches out across northern Italy spreading its deep blue waters into the regions of Piemonte, Lombardia, Veneto and Trentino Alto-Adige. The three biggest lakes are Como – deeply romantic with its shoreline of stunning villas and charming resort towns surrounding the shimmering cobalt blue of the lake; Maggiore – elegantly old world with a water’s edge lined by stylish, historic hotels, graceful lakeside towns and rocky coves; and Garda – grandly enchanting with its lovely mix of low-lying banks, steep slopes and dramatic snow-capped mountains.
So many important events in my life have happened around or near water that I’ve always secretly suspected it was either the pull of my Aquarian sun sign or some other supernatural intrusion that emboldened me to seize the day when I found myself near the shores of one body of water or another. The birth of Convito Italiano was no different. Many of the most significant steps in the early evolution of my business took place on the banks of three of northern Italy’s most magnificent lakes. On Como in 1979, Paolo and I sat beneath a wisteria-covered terrace and developed Convito’s earliest creative conceptualization. Only a few months later we signed our first business agreement in an elegant Stresa hotel on the shores of Lake Maggiore. And years later, in a small rustic trattoria overlooking Lake Garda at sunset, we formulated a new plan for Convito’s first expansion to a larger and more multifaceted downtown Chicago location.
Milan was my Italian headquarters in the seventies and early eighties. Convito partners Paolo Volpara and Wanda Bottino both lived there – Paolo in the center of the city and Wanda in the suburbs. Because Lake Como is so close to Milan, it was not unusual to drive there for a weekend lunch or an early weekday dinner. My first visit was on a Sunday afternoon in early April. Astonishingly we left a chilly, almost wintry, Milan and in less than an hour were welcomed to balmy breezes and the serious beginnings of a full-blown Lake District spring.
After a brief stop to explore the peaceful alleyways of Bellagio, we drove on to Cernobbio, a province of Como, and strolled its charming narrow streets, shopping, sightseeing and soaking in a gorgeous Italian spring. Eventually we ended up at Villa D’Este, my favorite villa-turned-luxury-hotel where Paolo, my husband Bob and I dined in the Veranda restaurant, which overlooks the splendid gardens of the estate. The focus of our conversation centered on Italian cooking in all its delicious simplicity. I ordered a risotto with porcini mushrooms, zucchini and a cheese of the region – Gorgonzola – one of my favorites. Gorgonzola is a rich, spicy and sensual cheese. Added to risotto, pasta or just about anything, Gorgonzola always elevates a dish to an entirely new level. Bob ordered tagliatelle pasta with sautéed shallots and porcini mushrooms dressed in extra virgin olive oil and fresh thyme. So lovely. So simple. Paolo selected grilled lake fish. I don’t remember the name of the fish but it was sautéed with olive oil and herbs (my favorite preparation which always allows the fish to be the star). It was accompanied by a saffron rice salad.
with porcini mushrooms & zucchini
Serves 4 – 6 people
I love the versatility of risotto: it can be simple or complex, depending on the ingredients added to the basic recipe. Risotto is the star and the main course in this instance. Because of the richness of Gorgonzola I would recommend serving something light before the risotto like vegetable antipasti. Sometimes risotto is all I want but if I do choose to serve a second course, I would serve a veal scaloppini or a simple sautéed veal or pork chop.
The best-known and most popular variety of Italian rice used for risotto is Arborio rice. Arborio’s uniform pearly kernels hold their shape, and their high starch content creates a delectable creamy consistency. Some chefs say the creamiest risotto is achieved when using another Italian rice variety, carnaroli. The starch content of this grain is even higher, and the end result is a luscious, plump risotto.
Because of its last-minute preparation, risotto can be a difficult dish to serve. However, making a good risotto requires more attention than concentration. My solution is to prepare this dish for good friends who will enjoy sharing a glass of wine and some simple antipasti with the cook while she tends to the ceremonial stirring of the risotto.
5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1-½ cups arborio or carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
1 ½ cup diced zucchini (use small zucchini – ¼ inch dice)
3 ounces crumbled Gorgonzola
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt & freshly grated pepper to taste
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
In a saucepan bring the chicken broth to a steady simmer.
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the rice and cook for approximately 2 – 3 minutes stirring constantly. Add the white wine. Stir into the rice until incorporated. Add ½ cup of the simmering broth. After the rice has absorbed the broth, continue adding the broth, 1’2 cup at a time. Continue stirring over medium heat, making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and being careful not to add too much broth at one time. Add the diced zucchini about 15 minutes into the cooking time of the rice. Continue adding the broth. The rice is finished when it is firm but tender. This process will take approximately 20 to 25 minutes. If you run out of broth, use water. Remove from the heat. Stir in the Gorgonzola and the Parmesan cheeses, salt & pepper. Serve in individual bowls. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts.
2 acorn squash.
Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff. Place each half in a baking dish, cut side up. Add about ¼ cup water so skins don’t burn and squash doesn’t dry out. Brush inside of squash with olive oil. Bake in a 375-degree oven for approximately an hour until squash is very soft.
These “squash bowls” hold the risotto. Scoop the risotto into each bowl and serve immediately. This was an idea of Convito Chef Noe Sanchez. I love the combination of the savory squash with the rich risotto. Serve with a salad and this makes a great Sunday night supper.
The recipe is based on notes in my journal and from memory. Suggested alterations by Convito Chef Noe Sanchez are noted at the end.
One of the most famous dishes of this region is Risotto alla Milanese – a risotto dish flavored with saffron resembling paella which makes sense due to the Spanish rulership over Milan for almost 2 centuries. This recipe is a cold version of that dish. The recipe below calls for the addition of peas and asparagus. Any combination of vegetables can be substituted.
Insalata di Riso allo Zafferano
4 cups chicken stock
1/8-teaspoon saffron rice threads
½ cup long grain rice
1 cup cooked peas
½ cup asparagus (stalks sliced diagonally into thin pieces)
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions (green party only)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the saffron threads and the rice. Cover and simmer until al dente. (Follow the directions on the package – usually 15 to 20 minutes). Stir occasionally. Drain in a fine sieve and rinse well with cold water. Place the rice in a bowl and toss with the peas, asparagus and scallions. Toss with the olive oil and lemon juice. Add the lemon zest and mix well. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
After finishing a meal that I would unknowingly keep with me for more than 30 years, I realized I would sorely miss this food. I knew that when I returned to Chicago finding even a passable regional Italian restaurant or market would be a challenge. The Italian explosion had not yet taken place in America – at least not in the Midwest. New York and California boasted a better selection of Italian wines in 1980 than the rest of the U.S. but even these two American food and wine trendsetter cities had their share of basket weave Chiantis and old Asti Spumantis hidden in dark undesirable corners of wine shops – and fine regional Italian restaurants were few and far between. I remember only one Italian market on the south side of Chicago in a predominately Italian neighborhood, and just a smattering of rather heavy-handed red-sauce & meatball-dominated Italian restaurants. The delights of bruschetta, polenta, risotto, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil were as yet undiscovered by the masses.
Looking back on that evening, I now realize that our dinner discourse with its confluence of ideas regarding all things Italian truly marks the beginning of Convito. Though we didn’t formulate a specific business plan, the seeds that were planted that evening to find a way to bring some part of Italy to Chicago would eventually blossom within the year into what would become my livelihood for the last 30+ years as one of the best known purveyors of regional Italian food and wine in the Midwest. Convito was recognized in 1987 by The Italian Institute of Food and Wine in New York City as “one of the finest ambassadors of Italian food and wine in America”. We also received two Italian wine awards in the 1980s, Vinarius and Vide, for our exceptionally diverse and fine selection of Italian wines.
Our drive back to Milan was wild. The roads that cut through the mountainous areas of Como are often barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. Perilous twists and turns are manageable for most Italian drivers (most of whom would consider themselves professionals if you asked them!) and even though Paolo had once been a formula-four racecar driver, I worried most about someone whipping around the bend in the opposite direction and drifting even a little bit into the oncoming lane – OUR lane.
Paolo assured us his impeccable driving skills would prevent any such calamity. He knew, he said, exactly how and where to maneuver the car if any dangerous situation should occur. Where, I thought? Up the mountain? Over the embankment? I couldn’t identify any of his other choices.
My husband and I continued our collective gasps and white-knuckled seat clinching through each and every hairpin turn. Paolo remained unfazed – maybe even enjoyably challenged by our fearful gasps. At one point I turned my head to exchange a look of horror with our backseat passenger only to discover Bob was no longer upright in his seat but had wisely selected a crouched position on the floor. Needless to say, we were much relieved to arrive safely back to our hotel and – if memory serves – leaped from the car, said our goodbyes and rushed into the hotel lounge for a much-needed nightcap.
This would not be my last hair-raising driving experience with Paolo. There were many to come. I did realize how lucky I was to have this smart, cultured, knowledgeable Italian teaching me about his country and personally escorting me to every region. I loved the journey. I even loved the many surprises. But never did I get used to taking those mountainous hairpin turns at high-speed.