Christmas Eve Risotto from Venice

This is a typical Christmas Eve dinner preparation and is unusual for two reasons: it is not cooked according to the risotto method even though it’s called a risotto, and it combines cheese with fish. The dish probably evolved from a simple fish pilaf, one using, perhaps, (goby, an ugly little fish that lives in the Venetian lagoon), then the eel was added and finally the beans. If you are unable to find eel, either striped bass, mahimahi, bluefish, or mackerel might do to provide the rich taste associated with this dish.

Eel is a traditional food for Christmas Eve in Venice. Grilled eel is popular and it is said that the doge Andrea Gritti died at the age of eighty-four on December 28, 1538 after eating too many grilled eels on Christmas Eve. The glass workers of Murano created a famous dish with eels, bisato scotà, a dish that can’t be replicated because it is prepared by the glass workers who dip the eel into molten glass until it is cooked, then break the glass away to eat it.

The borlotto bean used in this recipe is a kind of kidney bean in the genus Phaseolus with bright stripes of red or pink. Botanists now know that the Phaseolus mentioned by the classical Latin authors Virgil and Columella probably was another leguminous plant of the genus Dolichos, or hyacinth bean. The New World bean appeared in Europe in the sixteenth century, being first illustrated and described by the artist Hieronymus Tragus and the botanist Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566) in 1542.

If borlotti are unavailable use pinto, Roman, cranberry (red speckled), or red kidney beans, with pinto being a first choice. Common eel is usually sold around Christmastime in U.S. supermarkets and fish stores.

Risotto de la "Visilia"
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Rice
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 6
  • ⅔ cup dried borlotti, pinto, or Roman (about 6 ounces) beans, picked over, soaked in water to cover for several hours, and drained
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, very finely chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, very finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and very finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 pound common eel (Anguilla anguilla), skinned and cut into 1-inch pieces (see above for substitutes)
  • ¾ pound firm fish fillets (such as redfish, wolffish, red snapper, goby, whiting, perch, or scup)
  • 6 cups water
  • Salt to taste
  • 1½ cups short grain rice, such as Arborio
  • ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  1. Put the drained beans in a medium-size saucepan and cover by several inches with lightly salted cold water. Cook the beans over medium heat until soft but not breaking apart, about 1½ hours, but check before that time. Pass half the beans through a food mill or pulse in short bursts in a food processor in and reserve. Set aside the remaining beans.
  2. In a large casserole or heavy saucepan, melt half the butter, then cook the onion, celery, and carrot over a medium heat for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, eel, fish, water, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the fish can flake easily, about 30 minutes (but don't flake the fish; keep them whole; depending on the fish you choose, some fish may be done in 12 minutes, so check).
  3. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and return 1 quart of it to the casserole or saucepan. Reserve extra broth if needed later. Stir in the pureed beans and mix well. Remove the fish and eel from the strainer and reserve, keeping warm, to serve as a second course.


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