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Matt checked the steel-bodied German dive watch clipped through the top buttonhole of his chef's jacket. "Eleven minutes," he said.
"Total?" I asked, turning to make a bare-handed grab out of the salamander, the count "one-one-thousand-two" in my head as I set a searing hot platter on the stovetop rail. I shook my hand out of habit, not pain, knowing I could hold the thing through "three-one-thousand" before the calluses -- thick as bomber-jacket leather on the pads of my fingers -- started to sizzle and char. "Total?" I repeated. "Or since the last time we checked?"
"Total," Matt said.
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"Give it a couple more minutes," I advised.
While our experiment -- a simple pot of risotto -- bubbled under cover on a back burner, we spun finished plates down the pass rail, trying to catch up with the tommy-gun chatter of the ticket printer and the orders coming in: strip au poivre, steak frites twice, poulet moutarde, croûte forestière, penne arrabiatta with pepper vodka, tagliatelle with potato cream.
Matt and I, French-trained both, had never made risotto before. We knew it was something special, but we didn't know why. Like truffles, glacé de viande and the powerful Black Sea salt we'd been taught to covet so fiercely by our absentee exec, we knew that risotto was deserving of respect, so we'd come to it worshipfully and not without a little fear -- crawling as though the dish were the altar of some blood-soaked ancient religion full of plagues and lightning bolts for the unworthy.
"How long now?" My head was in the oven as I shoved frozen chips of beurre d'Isigny under the skin of half-cooked chickens.
"Clear the rail."
Ours was a sense-heavy kitchen, so when Matt pulled off the cover, we both bent over the pot, poking and sniffing. We had no spike thermometers, nothing to measure ingredients. Matt's watch was the only timer allowed on the line. But we were pretty finely tuned instruments ourselves, and we knew that things were done when they looked done, were right when they smelled right, were seasoned properly when they met the internal specifications of our own palates.
Inside the pot, the Arborio rice -- already toasted in our best olive oil -- had cooked down and was almost dry. It was creamy and pale gold -- beautiful, I thought. But when we tasted it, we knew instantly that it wasn't right. Not yet.
"Stock," I said, and Matt added more chicken stock, a saucier's ladle at a time. We watched, transfixed, as the grains plumped, greedily drinking up the hot liquid almost as fast as we poured it in. I stirred, lifting the stuff at the bottom of the pot and gently folding it into the top with a wooden spoon. The ticket machine clattered; we ignored it. This was magic, and we weren't gonna miss it for anything.
That was my first experience with risotto, and I've never lost my simple, wide-eyed wonder at the stuff. I see it on a menu; it still excites me. I've eaten it a thousand times -- had it done both well and poorly -- and will never lose my taste for it. Risotto was mythic to me then, and when prepared with the care and love it deserves, it's still magic to me now.
At Parisi, I bow over a plain white bowl of risotto Milanese, the smell of it tripping all the sense triggers I used to live by when my days and nights were run by the sound of the ticket printer and the ticking of a steel dive watch. Even though this is my first meal at Parisi's new space, tucked into an enclave of the city's old-guard Italian, I know the risotto is right without having to taste it, without even needing to open my eyes. I know in my bones and blood that Simone Parisi has imbued his kitchen with the same sense of awe for Carnaroli rice and chicken stock that Bird, my long-gone exec, did for Matt and me. I know that his cooks have come to the stove with at least a small measure of that same wonder.
When I finally taste it, the risotto is tender, creamy and solidly filling, the soft grains bathed in and carrying the best essence of a perfectly made stock. Saffron is the only ancillary ingredient to the Milanese, the threads bleeding red-orange into the bowl. If warm gold had a flavor, this would be it.
I try risotto Chianti with sausage, wilted radicchio and a bittersweet touch of Chianti wine, then risotto Gamberetti with asparagus tips, perfectly cooked shrimp and crumbled flakes of strong, pink salmon. They're both wonderful but somehow distracted. Risotto alone is enough, and to add anything beyond a twist of saffron, a pinch of parmesan, maybe a few rock shrimp seasoned with salt seems immoderate.
Still, that doesn't stop me from cleaning three plates and leaving wanting more -- the best compliment I can ever offer.
When I stop by Parisi on a Friday night, the line runs out the door. It stretches from the register where you order and wait to be seated, down along the wall, around a corner and out into the parking lot. The dining room is full, and there are enough customers waiting to do an entire turn of the tables and fill the place all over again. Ropes are set up to keep things neat and orderly, but I get the feeling that if I were to jump out waving a mortadella at these people, they'd riot -- driven mad by the smells of hot red sauce and browning garlic.