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Step Aside, Pasta! Rice Is Italy’s Most Versatile Carb

Rice is one of the most commonly eaten foods in the world, and with good reason: It’s filling, nutritious, and infinitely versatile.

From Chinese rice porridge to Indian rice-flour dosas to the Mexican drink horchata, rice can be found in sweet and savory recipes around the globe. But when you think of Italian food, you’re more likely to think of some other famous carbs in the culinary canon (we’re looking at you, pasta!) than the humble rice grain. In fact, there’s a long history of rice cultivation and cooking in Italy that stretches back hundreds of years. 

Rice was first introduced to Italy in the Middle Ages as international trade and travel exposed Italian merchants to products from India and Asia. In northern Lombardy in the 15th century, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, recognized the possibilities of this new crop and encouraged his subjects to begin growing rice in the Po Valley. As it turns out, this swampy lowland that stretches from Torino to Modena has the ideal climate for rice cultivation; warm in the summers, water flows down from the Alps into the valley’s shallow, flat basin, where it can collect in paddies to protect the plant’s tender roots. 

pile of rice grains

Today, the immense Po Valley is the largest rice-producing region in Europe, yielding more than 1.5 million tons every year. Some farms in the region have been in consistent use for more than 400 years, as is the case with one of our product partners, Riso Buono, and their estate outside Novara in the Piedmont. With literal centuries of expertise and traditional knowledge, Italian rice growers like Riso Buono and Cascina Belvedere, based in Bianzè, have perfected their craft, resulting in some of the finest, most delicious rice in the world.  

tractor on rice farm

Rice fields at Riso Buono in Novara

But is it all arborio? While arborio is without a doubt the most famous Italian rice variety, having made its name as the international rice of choice for risotto, Italian farmers specialize in more than a dozen different types of the grain, each with its own unique purpose. Riso Buono, for example, has carefully bred its own nutty Artemide variety, achieved by crossing Italian black venere rice with long-grain indica, which is ideal in salads. Many Italian chefs prefer the ultra-fine carnaroli to arborio for their risottos, while historic roma, one of the first types to be grown in Italy, is best for timbales.

Though it’s mainly grown in the north, rice dishes are beloved across Italy, from saffron-scented risotto alla Milanese to tiella Pugliese, a paella-like dish from the southern “heel” of Italy’s boot. Even the Amalfi coast favorite fritto misto (fried seafood) is coated in rice flour for its signature weightless crunch. Similar to baked pastas, elaborate rice timbales are a common celebration dish for many Italians—including Giada’s family! Aunt Raffy’s Sartu di Riso is a molded, stuffed rice dish that was a De Laurentiis family favorite for Sunday dinner. And Giada’s bitter rice recipe, a risotto Milanese variation rich with saffron, dried cranberries, and radicchio, is a tribute to her grandmother, who starred in the movie of the same name in the 1950s.

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