I’m proud to say I’ve eaten a lot of Italian food in my day. Growing up in New Jersey, if we ever went out to eat, it was likely Italian. It’s a rich, expansive cuisine that’s full of adored classics (I love a towering eggplant parm), but our commitment to those classics can prevent us from discovering lesser known pleasures waiting in the wings. Take, for example, the sartù di riso. Maybe your family has been making it for generations, or maybe you discovered it when you were today years old, but this savory risotto cake needs you to make it, eat it, and spread the word.
Sartù di riso is a magnificent risotto cake, stuffed with a delicious filling (usually meat and sauce), and sealed in with more risotto. I discovered this dish flipping through an imported Italian cooking magazine. (No, I don’t read Italian, yet, but the pictures help.) Browsing for recipes online, I eventually settled on using this recipe by Giada de Laurentiis as a guideline. She makes everything from scratch, including the pasta sauce, and she probably even grew the peas herself. I did not do that.
A great deal of what I love about this dish is that there’s plenty of room for modification. Besides making the risotto, you can decide how “homemade” you want yours to be. You can make the sauce and the meatballs, or you could just buy them. You can cut the recipe to make two servings, and build it in a small loaf pan, or you can triple the recipe to fill a 12-cup bundt pan to the brim. Make the filling vegetarian, or go with a brown or red gravy. You can make it in any baking dish, but I think the bundt pan’s structure gives it the most support.
I decided to do the semi-homemade version of this dish, and even then it was a little bit of a to-do. I love that sort of thing, so I was happy to fuss with risotto, but if you’re planning out your week, you can spread out the labor and make the risotto, the meatballs, and tomato sauce ahead of time, then assemble it the next day.
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Make the risotto using the method you prefer. I followed the directions on the back of my risotto rice container which called for one and a half cups of rice and yielded about six servings. Once the risotto is made, let it cool while you prepare the other ingredients. I decided to keep it simple and purchased prepared meatballs, fresh mozzarella, and a jar of bolognese sauce. I ultimately used a cup of sauce to cover 11 meatballs and three ounces of cheese (ripped into small chunks). You can branch out to use what’s available to you. Try ground sausage, cubed ham, shredded chicken, or sautéed vegetables to fill your sartù di riso. I suggest keeping the sauce light—just enough to coat the other ingredients. If you add too much, you’ll introduce a lot of water into the cake and it’ll take longer to bake off, or just become soggy.
Preheat the oven and prepare your pan. Use what you have available to you, but grab a bundt pan if you have one. I prefer it because it looks pretty when you turn it out, and you can make it as shallow or as deep as needed, depending on the amount of ingredients you have available to you. If you don’t have a bundt, use a cake pan, or a loaf pan. Thoroughly, and generously, butter the pan, and place it on a sheet pan. Do not substitute oil. The butter will cling to the baking dish walls; oil will puddle at the bottom. Coat the butter in bread crumbs, and knock out the excess. This buttery, crumby coating will toast in the oven and provide a subtle crunch, attractive color, and help signal doneness.
Using a spoon that will fit well into the bundt pan, dollop slightly warm risotto along the bottom of the pan until you’ve used half of the risotto. Firmly press the risotto so it hugs the bottom and sides or the pan, until you form a little valley for your filling. As you press, it’s important to commit to the movement, and avoid jostling the risotto around to different areas. The idea is to keep the bread crumbs where they are against the pan so the cake doesn’t stick later. Fill the valley with your filling of choice. Try to keep it within the boundaries of the rice.
Carefully cover the filling with the other half of the risotto. I used small scoops to place the rice evenly around the pan first before I used the back of my spoon to pack the risotto and connect the pieces. Your goal is to connect the sides of the first rice installment with the top, so you have a seamless layer of risotto surrounding the filling. Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of breadcrumbs over the top and dot with small pieces of butter before popping it all in the oven for about an hour. You’ll notice the edges begin to brown, and you’ll hear some light bubbling, but you shouldn’t see any liquid bubbling out of the top.
Let the sartù di riso cool on a wire rack for 10-20 minutes. Cover the cake pan with a serving dish wide enough to cover the entire pan (I used a cutting board) and flip the cake upside down onto the platter. The cake should fall out easily. If it doesn’t, I’m sending you good vibes. (You may have let it cool too long, but that would take quite a while, and probably require a fridge.) Try returning it to a warm oven for five minutes to loosen the butter and turn it out again. Worst-case-scenario, just dig into the dish with a spoon. It’ll still make your eyes roll back with pleasure. Wrap any leftovers and store them in the fridge for up to five days.
Simple Sartù di Riso
- 6 cups of cooked risotto
- 10-12 meatballs
- 1 cup of bolognese sauce
- ⅓ cup of cubed fresh mozzarella
- 2 tablespoons of melted butter
- ¼ cup breadcrumbs (I used one with dried herbs)
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Using a pastry brush, or your fingers, generously butter the inside of a bundt pan. Toss the breadcrumbs inside to coat the butter so you have an uninterrupted layer of crumbs. Dump out the excess crumbs into a small bowl and set aside. Toss the bolognese sauce, cheese, and meatballs together in a bowl to coat.
Use a small spoon to spread half of the risotto around the bottom of the baking pan. Press the rice into the bottom and up the sides of the baking dish to create a valley for the filling. Add the filling, keeping it within the walls of the risotto valley as much as you can. Dollop the remaining risotto over the top of the filling, joining it to the walls of rice from the first installment. Press and smooth this top layer so it’s even and firmly connected. Sprinkle the remaining small bowl of bread crumbs onto the top, and dot with a few small pieces of butter.
Bake for 45 minutes to an hour. The edges will begin to brown, but there shouldn’t be any liquid bubbling at the top. Let the cake cool for about 10-20 minutes, and flip it out onto a serving dish. Serve in slices with a side of sauce.