Risi e bisi, rice and (Venetian dialect for) peas, is a traditional Venetian dish, made in spring when fresh peas are widely available.
Today, the consistency should be between a thick soup and a thin risotto and should be eaten with a spoon although some restaurants in Italy will give you a fork to eat it.
In the spring, it is the first course par excellence and many have lengthy discussions on whether it is a soup, a risotto or a vegetable dish. Some say that there should be as many peas in this dish than there are grains of rice. I will leave it up to you to figure out just how many peas you want to put in.
An Italian gastronomic writer, Giuseppe Mazzotti, wrote in 1965: ”The people of Veneto and especially the Venetians, like risotto all’onda (wavelike risotto), a fashion of naming a dish which could only occur to a people of navigators. That means that the risotto should not be too dry, but rather creamy, if not almost liquid – in a word, wavy” – ondoso.
”A real risi e bisi, can only be found in Venice, in its season. To make it well, you must follow all the rules, especially this one: the peas must be fresh, sweet, tender (and hence from Veneto), shelled at the last minute.”
There are a few other rules to follow when making risi e bisi. First, the broth is made by boiling the pea shells, and it can be enriched by adding either chicken or beef broth, or both. Second, the soffritto should include celery along with onions, garlic or leek, but the taste of the celery should predominate. Third, the peas should be added after 8 minutes of cooking and the parmesan, two minutes before the end and the dish should be served at once. Also, the preferred rice is Vialone nano, a short grain rice available in specialty food shops. If you can’t find it, use Arborio rice.
Pancetta can be left out and this can easily be a vegetarian dish. If you can’t find peas in their pods, use frozen peas and add them at the very last minute. Use vegetable or chicken broth.
Here is my version. We were very pleased with the result.
600 g (1 1/2 pound) fresh peas, in their shells
1.25 liter (5 cups) water
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
60 g (2 oz) pancetta, diced
1 rib celery, finely diced
1/4 leek, white and light green parts, finely diced
1 cup risotto rice
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup grated parmesan, plus more for serving
1. Start by making the broth. Shell the peas at the last minute. Put the peas aside and keep the shells. Cook the shells in salted boiling water for 30 minutes. Turn the heat off and let cool for a few minutes.
2. Transfer the pea shells and the liquid to a blender or a food processor and reduce to purée. Strain through a fine sieve and only keep the broth. Keep it warm on a back burner and start making the rice.
3. In a pan over low heat, cook the pancetta in the olive oil until crispy. Remove from the pan and put on a paper towel to drain.
4. In the residual pancetta fat, cook the celery and leek for a few minutes until soft but not coloured.
5. Add the rice and toast for one or two minutes. Raise the heat to medium. Start adding the warm broth, one ladle at a time, and stir constantly until all the liquid has evaporated.
6. After eight minutes of cooking, add the peas and continue adding broth, stirring until it dries up.
7. After 16 minutes of cooking, add the parmesan and continue to cook for another two minutes.
8. When the rice is al dente, turn the heat off, add the butter and the reserved pancetta, and add one last ladle of broth. Serve at once in warm bowls.