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Food: Simmer Down

The city's mushrooming risotto feud creates another stir.

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Anyone who knows anything about risotto knows there are no shortcuts. It takes three days and nights, six hours, and 22 minutes of constant stirring while balancing on one foot to get it right. Otherwise, it's not risotto. And no one is more adamant about this than San Domenico owner Tony May.

May recently invited members of the press to help him celebrate his restaurant's risotto festival (which runs through October 11 and offers a daily selection of twelve versions, from salt-cod-and-prune to squid-ink). A superb four-course luncheon showcased rice from Riso Bello, one of Italy's best producers. Between courses, Alejandro Titiunik, a Riso Bello representative, flitted from table to table rhapsodizing about the beauty and variety of Italian rice. Then May took the floor and gave a talk in which he issued a warning against risotto impostors: "I had an exchange with a well-known chef," he said, "a wonderful, incredible chef, who said he could make risotto in seven minutes. I told him to stick to what you do best."

If you saw the front page of the New York Post this past March 31 (food fight! top city chefs at war over risotto), you know that the risotto radical May was referring to was four-star Lespinasse chef Christian Delouvrier. The trouble began when May took Delouvrier to task for publishing in the Times his six-minute quickie risotto recipe, which has an unusual pedigree: Delouvrier said he learned it from some colleagues who picked it up from some Italians in southern France. In an unpublished letter to the editor of the Times' "Dining" section, May wrote that although Delouvrier's creation might be delicious, it wasn't risotto and therefore did a disservice to the great dish. "In learning our trade," he wrote, "we are taught by those who know more than we do, not from 'some Italian cook from the south of France.' "

So it surprised everyone when Titiunik stood up at the luncheon and presented Riso Bello's latest product: a parboiled, ready-in-twelve-minutes flavored risotto that requires only an occasional stir and that will soon be available at the Vinegar Factory and, of all places, Buon Italia, the Chelsea Market shop run by May's brother-in-law. In deference to his surroundings, Titiunik pointed out that the instant risotto was for home cooks only, not professionals.

Then all eyes shifted to May. He held his hand over his mouth and chin, resting his elbow on his chest like Rodin's Thinker. After a pause, he proclaimed: "Use this as a side dish at home, if you need to give starch to your family. But they will always want to improve on it and go to a restaurant." Delouvrier refused to comment on his apparent vindication. His spokesperson explained, "He finds the whole thing kind of sordid."


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