Is it just a little over the top to ask you to make a fresh batch of risotto — 18 unbroken minutes at the stove stirring and stirring — just so you can have a pot of cold stuff the following day to make risotto al salto? Possibly. But to me, not any more over the top than the way I first had the dish at Antica Trattoria della Pesa, a sturdy and refined old restaurant in Milan that features traditional dishes of the Lombardy region of Italy. The risotto al salto came to the table on a trolley; there was heavy silverware, a woven cloth napkin on my lap. One perfect, saffron-gold disc on a bone white china plate. I don’t know if that’s excessive, even still. And yet.
It was breathtaking. I could not even exhale, it was so fantastic. So simple. So confident. So careful. One crispy disc of day-old risotto Milanese — creamy, starchy, saffrony — prepared “al salto,” the Italian phrase for the French word “sauté”; “sauté” itself the French word for the English word “jump.” No garnish, no pepper mill, no cheese grater or sprig of parsley.
This was not the first time I understood the Italian way of turning the lights up, not down, to show proudly the quality of the work. Their plates are spectacularly unembellished, and garnishes are viewed with suspicion, as if the cook wishes to distract your eye from the fact of an inferior ingredient or to divert your attention away from sloppy technique. So no, for me, not over the top at all to start with a fresh risotto stirred constantly to get all the starch so we can have something worthy of the trolley, the china, the linen napkin. Something that can stand alone on a plate without garnish.
And it was certainly not the first time I had seen the Italian way of using day-old goods, repurposing and reusing everything, letting nothing go to waste — not a grain of rice, not a strand of spaghetti, not a crust of bread. Ribollita is perhaps the most well known example of that resourcefulness, a rather soulful and satisfying and remarkably tasty soup made out of the harshest nothing of stale dry crusts of bread, “reboiled” with water and olive oil. My late Italian mother-in-law Alda Fuortes de Nitto made very tasty pasta cake with day- (or two- or three-day) old spaghetti, which she mixed with a little egg and tomato paste and cheese and cooked, also al salto, flipped in the pan until crisp on both sides. My kids still ask me to cook more plain pasta than we need for dinner, just so we can make Alda’s pasta cake the next day.
So for me, it’s neither an excess nor an imposition to put both of these practices into my own cooking, to make an outstanding risotto in the first place, and to repurpose it the following day in this completely delicious way. As with our Nonna Alda’s pasta cake, you may find yourself wanting to make extra risotto just to have leftovers for the al salto version.
Start with cool and stiff risotto and, using the back of a large spoon or a heatproof spatula, tap and pack and pat the cold cooked rice down into the pan — for us our heavy, well-seasoned black steel pans are ideal — to form a tight perfect large disc. Occasionally spin the pan around on the burners, shaking it, to loosen the cake as it cooks; the creamy starch from the rice is the very thing that makes the best crispy exterior, but it likes to stick to the pan, so a few shakes along the way to loosen will help. Nonstick Teflon pans, moderate heat and lots of butter are the surefire way to go at it in the home kitchen.
When it’s crisp on both sides and golden, slide it out onto a baker’s rack to drain briefly before plating. The chef at Antica Trattoria de-pans (if that’s a word) by sliding the finished cake onto a clean china plate, then sliding it from that plate onto another, and then again, from that second plate onto a third clean, pristine bone white china plate. No slick of grease left to pool. You receive perfection at the table, the sunlight filtering in through the demi curtains. If you can spare the plates, I don’t see why we shouldn’t start putting that kind of Italian elegance into our own cooking, too.