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The Stirring Story of Northern Italy's Risotto

If food groups had superheroes, Arborio rice would certainly deserve the name Amazing Absorbo Grain.

Able to absorb twice its weight in liquid. Able to transform its pearly white flatness into dense creamy deliciousness in a single pot.

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The dish with claim to its fame is called risotto (ree-zot-to). In short, it's Italian Arborio rice that absorbs chicken broth, and is mixed with cheese to create a creamy but nubby delight.

While risotto is commonly listed as a pasta dish on Italian restaurant menus, the rice dish seems to be claiming its own spotlight. More restaurants are serving it; even boxed versions of dried risotto can now be found in stores.

''It's comfort food, without question,'' says Steve Chevalier, manager at the popular Tuscan Grill in Waltham, Mass., where risotto is a steady favorite.

In Italy, risotto has long been celebrated for its hearty versatility.

''Rice is to northern Italy what beans are to central Italy, what macaroni is to southern Italy,'' says Mary Ann Esposito, author of the new ''Celebrations Italian Style'' (Hearst Books, 342 pp., $25). While risotto is eaten as a first course in Italy, it is often served as a main course in America, she observes.

Regardless, ''risotto is one of the best things in life,'' says Judy Witts Francini. In Florence, Italy, Ms. Francini has been teaching Tuscan ''Rustica'' cooking in her home for nearly 10 years.

One evening she prepared saffron risotto with a group of students from Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. (Francini, who is American-born, has taken it upon herself to teach them cooking survival skills during their semester abroad.)

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She explains that Arborio rice is grown in the Po Valley region of Italy. Its flat shape and starchy makeup account for its ability to super-absorb. In making risotto, the goal is to end up with a dense rice dish that has a creamy consistency and a good bite, she says. Timing is everything.

There are three rules in cooking risotto, writes Patricia Wells in her book ''Patricia Wells' Trattoria'' (Avon Books, 1993): ''Do not add too much liquid at once; do not add more liquid until the previous addition has been absorbed; and stir, stir, stir.''

Francini has her students stir-stir-stirring. Occasionally, one of them takes a taste. ''It should be al dente,'' Francini says. She will later add porcini mushrooms and saffron for flavor and a golden hue.

Risotto is the type of dish where the variations are endless, says Ms. Esposito, host of public television's ''Ciao Italia.'' She suggests adding seafood, vegetables, or a variety of cheeses.

Just as there are rules for preparing risotto, there are guidelines for eating it. Steaming servings are mounded in shallow, pre-warmed bowls and delivered to the table immediately. There, diners add grated Parmesan and eat from the outside rim in, so the core stays hot. As Esposito says, ''Once risotto is ready, it waits for no man.''

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