Cook the Book: Mama Agata's Lemon Risotto

Cook the Book: Mama Agata's Lemon Risotto

When it comes to my love for Italian food, I subscribe to the three Rs rule: ricotta, risotto, and finally the last R, which is revolving. Sometimes it stands for robiola, a bloomy rind cheese with a slightly tangy flavor; other times it's rucola, or arugula as it's known over here; or that R could stand for rapini, deliciously bitter broccoli rabe. But if I had to choose just one R out of my list, it would have to be risotto.

This recipe for Mama Agata's Lemon Risotto is brought to us courtesy of Arthur Schwartz, author of The Southern Italian Table. Agata Lima, more affectionately known as Mama Agata, runs a small cooking school out of her home in Ravello, Campania. Living and cooking the the Italian paradise that is the Amalfi Coast affords Mama Agata access to the two ingredients that make this risotto really special. The lemons that grow in this region swell to the size of grapefruits and are especially aromatic due to their oil-rich rinds. The second ingredient that sets this risotto apart is the cream. Dairy has never been a major ingredient in Southern Italian cooking, but up until recently the Amalfi coast was home to some of the best dairy-producing cattle in all of Italy. Their milk was made to make fior di latte, a cow's milk mozzarella so good that the name literally translates to flower of milk.

This risotto is a dish where your success has everything to do with gathering the best ingredients possible, and there are a few tricks to finding them. The best cream isn't creamy white; it should be tinged buttery yellow and smell just the slightest bit cheesy, even grassy. Lemons with wonderfully aromatic zest will spray a bit of their lemony oils when you run your thumb nail over the rind.

With a bare bones recipe like this the remaining few ingredients are equally important. "Never cook with wine that you wouldn't drink" is one of the best cooking rules around; even after the alcohol cooks off, the flavor of the wine is still there. The wine that you cook with doesn't have to be expensive, but it should be a few steps up from palatable. And if you aren't a big drinker, here's a tip that will save you countless trips to the wine store for otherwise useless bottles of wine: A bottle of good quality dry vermouth will work very well in place of white wine for most recipes, and will keep (opened!) pretty much indefinitely.

As always with our Cook the Book feature, we have five (5) copies of The Southern Italian Table to give away this week.

  • Yield:6 to 8


  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 pound carnaroli rice (2 1/4 cups)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (juice of about 6 lemons)
  • Grated zest of 6 lemons
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, or more to taste
  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • Grated Parmigiano cheese


  1. 1.

    Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan or stovetop casserole over medium heat. Add the rice and stir over the heat for about 2 minutes. Add the white wine. It should sizzle instantly. Stir well and cook until the wine has nearly evaporated, usually less than 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice, half the lemon zest, about 1 cup of water, and the salt and pepper. Stir well, then let simmer until the liquid reduces to under the level of the rice.

  2. 2.

    Add approximately 3/4 cup more water, just enough to cover the rice. Stir well again. Continue adding water, stirring and simmering for a total of 18 minutes from the time the wine is added. Just before the rice is done, stir in the remaining lemon zest. When done, the rice should be tender but still firm in the center.

  3. 3.

    Stir in 1/2 cup of the cream, and a tiny bit more water if necessary to make the mixture more creamy than starchy. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust if necessary. If the risotto is too lemony for your taste, add a bit more cream.

  4. 4.

    Serve immediately, sprinkled with grated cheese.