Autumn eating in Italy is a bitter-sweet affair, and no more so than in Veneto where bitter red bulbs of radicchio di Verona stands alongside hunks of sweet pumpkin at the market – both destined for risotto, ravioli or soup.
Rich, sweet lunches are bookended by an Aperol spritz as an aperitivo and a shot of bitter dark espresso following dessert. And of course, no menu would be complete without the offering of risotto al radicchio, where the biting red leaves succumb to cheese and starch and butter to become silky ribbons – still bitter, but tempered by care and creaminess.
It may sound like some terrible glib platitude, but bitterness really does make the sweet all the sweeter. Pandoro – buttery, light and powdered with icing sugar – becomes even more angelic when eaten alongside a cup of strong coffee. While a dish of tender pork belly is impossibly rich and sweet next to a bowl of softened cime di rabe (turnip tops) – served, as I like to imagine, in the warm sanctuary of a Venetian restaurant on the sort of day where you can’t see the other side of the Grand Canal for fog.
On Sunday, I enjoyed a glorious autumn meal at Il Pigno – an agritourism restaurant nestled in a vineyard by Lake Garda. The menu was a poem to the season, but it was the ravioli di zucca that brought the most sighs of contentment. These pockets of pumpkin, drizzled with sage butter, offer a sweet antidote to the bitter notes of autumn in Italy.
Working with one saucepan and a spatula in my tiny Italian kitchen, I also managed to pull together my own risotto using the beautiful radicchio di Verona. Risotto is the perfect canvas for many flavours – be them sweet, rich or sprightly – but is particularly delicious alongside these bitter leaves.
Whether its this risotto or an Aperol spritz before dinner, bring bitterness into your life this autumn – and a little sweetness for that matter, too.
Risotto al radicchio di Verona
400g risotto rice
1l chicken stock
a glass of white wine
70g grated parmesan
5tbsp olive oil
Finely chop the onion and cut the radicchio into thin ribbons, removing the tough stalk. Soften the onion in the oil and half the butter, before adding the radicchio and sautéing for a few minutes. Add the riso and fry for until translucent – about a minute. Add the wine and three cups of the stock Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and stir, gradually adding more rice once the liquid is absorbed. Keep stirring and adding the broth until the rice is cooked – about 20 minutes. Once it’s ready, add the parmesan and butter and stir. Put the lid on the pan for two minutes, then stir vigorously until you have an oozy, creamy risotto.