Years ago I was casting about for a hearty risotto: something with meat in it and not necessarily subtle or delicate. In one of my regional Italian cookbooks, I found just what I was looking for: A dish in which the rice was simply boiled and a pre-cooked sausage mixture folded in afterward. It sounded great, but somehow I never got around to making it. And having accomplished that research mission, I promptly forgot the name of the dish and the region of which it was a specialty. Last week, though, two Italian-style sausages left over from a previous dinner got me to thinking about it again, and I put the Web to work, with searches like “riso AND salsiccia AND NOT risotto”. After a while, I found it: Riso (or sometimes risotto) alla pilota, eaten in Mantua. And there it was in my Lombardy cookbook, not to mention splattered all over the internet, in text, images and videos.
Because it is so simple – plain cooked rice (not stirred with gradual additions of liquid) mixed with sautéed sausage (or pork pounded with seasonings) and sometimes onion – it depends entirely on the ingredients, and that means it won’t taste authentic without the particular sausage Mantuan cooks use, most typically the garlic-scented salamella mantovana. This is liberating, because it means the rest of us can appropriate the idea of the dish and make something quite different but, with any luck, no less delicious.
Here’s where I took the idea with my two already-cooked fennel-seed-seasoned sausages (enough for two main-course portions). I chopped a medium onion and minced a tiny bit of garlic, and sweated them in olive oil with salt, pepper and a few spikes of rosemary, chopped. When the onions were soft, I raised the heat to medium and added the sausages, which I’d chopped fairly fine (you could – and probably should – use raw sausages, removed from their skins and broken up by hand before sautéing and then broken up further as they cook). These took two or three minutes to heat through and become tender again, and I then added about 1/3 cup (80 ml) vegetable stock (other stock would be fine, or white wine) and reduced it for a couple of minutes before spooning in 1/2 cup (120 ml) tomato sauce. Canned tomatoes, crushed, or fresh ones in season (peeled and chopped) would be fine. After five minutes of simmering over low heat, I tasted the mixture for seasoning and transferred it to a bowl to cool.
I did not wash the saucepan, but did scrape it fairly clean with a rubber spatula: Because this is not the authentic Mantuan dish, I wanted the rice to gain some flavor from the film of tomato-sausage juice remaining in the pan. So, in the same pan, I cooked 3/4 cup (160 g) risotto rice (vialone nano in this case, but use what you have) in 1-1/4 cup (300 ml) light vegetable stock – water would be fine too, though I might not want to use chicken or other meat-based stock – brought it to the boil, gave it a stir, lowered the heat to minimal, covered the pan and simmered very slowly until done: slightly chewy but neither crunchy nor mushy. This took about 13 minutes; start checking after 11 minutes and don’t be surprised if it takes 15 or 16. I let it stand, covered, for five minutes (a good practice in almost all rice cooking), then, over medium-low heat, folded in the sausage mixture and all its liquid. When it was warmed through and seasoning and moisture levels checked, I stirred in a couple of tablespoons of grated parmesan (yes, pecorino would be fine) and served with more cheese on the side.
Whether or not this tasted much like Mantuan riso alla pilota, it was indeed delicious and hearty. Yet it did not lack subtlety of flavor and texture: The taste of the rice was not masked, although the sausage mixture was savory, and there was a nice, softly chewy consistency from both the rice and the fragments of sausage.
There’s a lot of scope for variations here, but at least for now I’ve found – and remembered – my hearty alternative to risotto.
Etymology note: Riso alla pilota has nothing to do with either aviation or navigation. Traditionally, whole rice was milled in a mortar-like implement called a pila; this was operated by a pilota.