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May 11, 2010
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Wine With . . . Risi E Bisi

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

In a perfect world we might all be heading to Italy to celebrate the arrival of spring, but for those of us who can’t get there simply on a whim, the next best thing might be to whip up some risi e bisi, a springtime dish especially beloved by Venetians. Historically this toothsome mélange of rice and peas was so special that it could be eaten only on specific feast days that were decreed by the Doge, the ruler of Venice.  Happily, today we all can enjoy risi e bisi whenever we want.

Risi e bisi might be served as a first course, or even a side dish; but to our way of thinking, it is such satisfying, succulent, and sublimely rib-sticking comfort food that we like it best on its own with, at most, a plain green salad to follow.  Traditionally, and ideally, only fresh-shucked spring peas are used, but frozen ones can be perfectly delicious in this dish. 

Risi e bisi is not quite a risotto, since it should be creamier in texture (although the actual addition of cream is frowned upon by purists).  While it may be made as an entirely vegetarian dish, using vegetable stock in lieu of chicken broth (make the stock with pea pods, carrots and celery), pancetta or prosciutto are often added to risi e bisi in Italy.  The meat ratchets the flavor up into a new realm, making the dish not necessarily better, but more complex.  More important, from a wine perspective, this addition also makes it friendlier to reds as well as whites.  If you don’t use pancetta, stir in a couple of tablespoons of good quality butter at the end for extra flavor and body.  But in general, true risi e bisi should stand out for the purity of its spring-like tastes, unmarred by extraneous ingredients such as herbs and spices, or even other vegetables.  A sprinkling of finely minced parsley, however, never hurts anything.


2 ounces pancetta, coarsely chopped*

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, minced

1 ½ cups Vialone Nano, Carnaroli, or Arborio rice

½ cup white wine

6 cups hot chicken stock   

2 cups fresh or frozen peas

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for passing at the table

* Since pancetta can be very salty, do not add extra salt until the dish is almost completely cooked.  Then taste it, and add salt if necessary.

In a large, heavy sauté pan or other pot, add the pancetta to the olive oil and cook until the fat begins to render.  Add the onion, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to soften but not brown.  Stir in the rice and continue cooking over medium-high heat for another 3 minutes or so.  Pour in the wine and cook, stirring, until it is entirely absorbed.  Stir a couple of cups of broth into the rice, letting it simmer until the liquid is entirely absorbed (stir it a couple of times during this process).  Add another cup or so of broth and let it reduce.  When the rice has been cooking for about 10 minutes, stir in the peas.  Continue this process, adding the broth gradually, until the rice is almost completely soft (it should be slightly softer than traditional al dente risotto).  If it seems too dry, stir in a little more broth to achieve a soupier texture.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheese (if you are using butter, stir it in as well).  Serve at once.

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We guessed that whites would work better than reds with this springtime dish, so in choosing wines to try with it, we opened eight whites and only three reds (also one dry rosé).  Well, we were wrong.  The richer whites worked well, but many of the lighter-bodied ones simply didn’t have enough heft to hold their own in this pairing.  By contrast, the reds proved quite satisfying.  As you’ll see, we’re not recommending anything too big or tannic.  But to our surprise, we found that a soft, supple red wine ends up being just as good a risi e bisi partner as rich, lush white. 


serves 4-6


Approx. Price





D’Arenberg, McLaren Vale Adelaide Hills (Australia) Chardonnay “The Olive Grove” 2008

(Imported by Old Bridge Cellars)







Rich and ripe, with the sweet echoes of vanilla playing an appropriately supporting role, this fairly youthful Chardonnay had enough zesty acidity to stay in focus when paired with this creamy, cheesy dish.



Weingut Hillinger, Burgenland (Austria) “Small Hill” 2007

(Imported by Select Wines)





A blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir, and St. Laurent, this light red finished with a peppery, spicy note, something that provided a welcome counterpoint to the richer flavors in the risi e bisi.  It was a definite winner, and we’d look for more reds with this sort of flavor profile (a Valpolicella possibly, or a light-bodied Côtes-du-Rhône), were we to experiment with this pairing again.   




Kenwood, Sonoma County (California) Pinot Gris 2009







Tasting of peaches and pears, this fruit-driven white was rich enough to work with the dish, but at the same time never seemed flabby or unfocused.  We found that to be the key with whites and risi e bisi.  You want a rich wine, but at the same time a lively, even somewhat crisp one.




Matua Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Pinot Noir “Estate Series” 2007

(Imported by FEW Imports)








Genuinely light-bodied and, unlike so many contemporary Pinot Noirs, not overtly sweet, this wine was very easy to sip and enjoy.  Its bright red berry and cherry flavors gave the dish a lift.








Zaca Mesa, Santa Ynez Valley (California) Viognier 2008








Quite rich and lush, with a floral note in the bouquet, and plenty of peachy fruit flavor, this wine (much like the other two whites we’re recommending) worked well because it ended on a crisp, refreshing note.  This dish feels so creamy and rich, that no matter the color of the wine, you need acidity in the wine for balance.