Riso oro e zafferano. Literally, rice, gold and saffron. This is the name of a dish created by Italy's legendary Gualtiero Marchesi some fifteen years ago at his eponymous restaurant, then in Milan. In the ensuing years, both the dish and its creator have been praised as the height of artistry and creativity in food, to the point of being enshrined in museums. At the same time, they've been vilified as decadent and tasteless, to the point that one writer called them "high tack." What is it about one man or one dish that creates such intense but extremely varied feelings?
The Italian peninsula has long been home to those who were passionate about both food and art. Wealthy and royal Romans built great palaces and temples and staged lavish banquets where chefs were required to be sculptors as well as cooks. Medieval and Renaissance princes and merchants patronized the arts and revived the tradition of great feasts with endless waves of elaborately constructed dishes. Food imagery is incorporated in art. After all, Italy's most famous single painting is Leonardo's Last Supper. In the early 20th century, the Futurist art movement (similar to Cubism) even published a cookbook incorporating their aesthetic principles into cuisine. Passions about art and food are strong and often overlap.
Riso oro e zafferano is a visually striking dish. The serving plate is always wide and flat, with a white center and a broad black rim edged in gold. In the middle of the plate, covering the white part, Marchesi places brilliant yellow risotto alla milanese, a rich concoction of rice cooked with saffron, stock and marrow. In the center is draped a square of edible gold leaf. While the dish is no Last Supper, it is a work of extraordinary design, simple yet forceful, with a balanced presentation that is beautiful and appealing to all the senses. Marchesi's devotion to art is not limited to this famous dish. Other creations are equally artistic. One notable example is his Raviolo aperto, two thin squares of pasta with a single leaf of flat parsley between them, served atop lightly cooked shrimp, sole and scallops. This dish is just as striking as Riso oro e zafferano without the decadence of eating gold.
Marchesi also showcases art in the design and decoration of his restaurants. The signature element is the placement of small sculptures on every table in his dining room. Many artists, styles and countries are represented in this collection, which gives every table its own unique character. Marchesi spent the 80's and early 90's working in Milan, where his subterranean restaurant was sleekly decorated in beiges and browns, all clean lines in modernist shapes. In the early 90's, he moved his operation to the country, near Lake Iseo, into elaborately decorated, traditional-style rooms with frescoed walls and beamed ceilings. Only the food, the distinctive 7-color logo and table sculptures moved with him.
So why is Riso oro e zafferano sometimes lionized, sometimes condemned? Marchesi is a national celebrity, with countless television appearances to his credit, the subject of numerous books and articles. He is credited with being the father of nuova cucina, the style of fancy cooking that developed parallel to the nouvelle cuisine of France. He is Italy's most famous chef. He broke all the rules and wrote new ones. You either love him or hate him, and likewise his food.
I have had the pleasure of eating Riso oro e zafferano on several occasions. When I first ate it in the mid-80's, at the height of a booming economy where excess was all, the dish seemed like just the right way to celebrate one's success. In the later years of recession, eating gold did seem a bit decadent, rather like Marie Antoinette and her cake. Most recently, the dish seemed like just what it is: a beautifully designed plate of carefully prepared food which reflects both the history of the region and the artistic sensibilities of its creator. If I had to give a name to what Gualtiero Marchesi does, it would be performance art. The food on the plate is but one part of the experience of dining. While Marchesi's food is artistic, it is the combination of food with setting and service that creates the complete experience. Dining at Marchesi is dinner as great theater.
by Sims Brannon, Los Angeles
Ristorante Gualtiero Marchesi is located at L'Albereta Locanda in Franciacorta, about one hour east of Milan near Lake Iseo. Click here for other less expensive lodgings in the area.