I love rice. There’s something about those pristine little grains waiting to add texture to a rich gravy that just makes me happy. After several decades as restaurateurs’ starch of choice, however, rice has been increasingly supplanted by spuds, and infused with everything from truffle oil to garlic-scented bacon bits. So I’ve taken to haunting Italian spots where my favorite cereal is still treated with the respect it’s due.
No one is really sure how rice arrived on the boot. Some suggest Arabs brought it in via Sicily. Others give credit to Venetian merchants who got hooked in the Levant, and nationalists say the Romans already knew of the wondrous grain. Cultivation began in the 15th century, and by the 19th the Po Valley had become the center of a growing industry. The legendary privations of the rice workers were immortalized in the 1949 film Bitter Rice. Now things are largely mechanized, as rice remains the backbone of northern Italian cuisine—frequently in the form of risotto, a word that signifies the highly glutinous short-grain varieties that are the base for the dish.
Ready for franchising, Risotteria serves myriad variations on risotto as well as two other basics: panini and salads. This is simple fare at moderate prices; only seven dishes on the extensive menu top the $10 mark. You can eat ’em in or take ’em out. The small West Village spot is as antiseptic as a research lab: white tiles for hygiene; an open kitchen along one wall; two confusing checkouts, one strictly for take-away; and enough tables to seat about 20. The warmth comes from the friendly server and the aromas wafting from the bubbling pots.
Snag the last table in the window if you don’t want to get crowded when the joint is jumping, then select your pleasure from the menu, which boasts: “No freezers. No cans. Everything is handmade.” Rice aficionado though I am, I couldn’t resist the arugula salad, choosing a balsamic vinaigrette from the 11 dressings offered ($8.50). The mass of baby greens topped with shards of zesty parmesan and mined with sweet, tart bits of soft, oven-dried tomatoes was almost too much for one, but just enough when shared for a prelude. Three types of rice are prepared; I selected the familiar arborio with asparagus and saffron ($8.50) as a reliable benchmark. Sunshine yellow and shot through with tips and bottoms of tender shoots, it was creamy and filling, although I had my reservations about its almost shellfish-like taste, which I attributed to the saffron’s pungency. A sip of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo sold by the glass ($4.50) washed it down nicely.
I saved a comparative rice tasting for my second visit, when my friend and I selected the canaroli with roasted leg of lamb, spinach, and gorgonzola ($10) and the vialone nano with garlic and parsley ($7). The canaroli lived up to its billing as rice “caviar.” Smooth and rich, it easily withstood the pleasantly gamy taste of the meat and the hefty punch of the cheese. The wonder, though, was the vialone nano. Shorter than arborio, the al dente round grains provided an unctuous base that harmonized perfectly with the honeyed tang of the roasted garlic and the slightly peppery punctuation of the herb. Paired with a glass of chianti ($5), the heaping bowl left me completely satisfied. Risotteria can franchise in my neighborhood whenever it wants.