Cheap Eats:
Risi e Bisi
 Rice and Peas

For most Americans, pasta is probably the first thing they think of when they contemplate Italian food. So it might come as a surprise that pasta really only dominates in southern Italy. Of course, there’s a good reason Americans think pasta when they think Italy—the majority of Italian immigrants to the U.S. came from southern Italy, so pasta was the food that got introduced here. However, when traveling in Italy, one learns that, in the north, rice reigns. I can still remember seeing pasta begin to vanish from menus as we moved northward, with fabulous rice-based dishes appearing by the time we reached Florence and dominating completely by the time we reached Venice. Today, Americans are becoming increasingly aware of Italian rice dishes, most especially risotto, but it’s still not usually the first thing to come to mind.

Italy is, in fact, both the largest grower and largest consumer of rice in Europe. While there was probably no rice in Europe before the Moors introduced it into Spain, Italy soon adopted the grain, and by the Renaissance, it had taken hold and the first risottos were being created. Italian rice cultivation appears to have gotten its start in the Po Valley, and even today, the regions where rice all but eclipses pasta—the Piedmont, Lombardy, and Venetia— are in or near this geographic region.

The recipe below is for a classic Venetian dish, rice with peas. It is a close relative of risotto. With just a few ingredients, there are still many variations, some more traditional, some easier. The notes below will suggest some of the things you can do to make this more authentic or to accommodate food restrictions, schedules, or budgets.

Risi e Bisi
(Rice and Peas)

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 Tbs. butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

¼ lb. pancetta, chopped

2 cups white rice

5 cups chicken broth (see Note)

½ cups frozen peas

1 cup grated Parmesan, Pecorino, or Romano cheese (or a combination)

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil and butter in a good-sized skillet or frying pan. Sauté the onion until it begins to soften. Add the garlic and sauté for one minute. Add the rice and pancetta and sauté, stirring, until the rice begins to turn transparent (a couple of minutes). Add the liquid (carefully—broth on hot frying pan will splatter), stir, and bring to a boil. Stir, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in the frozen peas and the grated cheese, then cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Serves 8.


For added flavor, I usually substitute from ½ to 1 cup of white wine for an equal amount of the chicken broth.

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