The most popular and, by a very large margin, the most plentifully produced premium Italian rice, Arborio is classified as superfino, a term applied only to strains that produce the plumpest, largest grains. The thin outer layer of the grain disintegrates quickly in cooking, providing a generous amount of the starch required for a well bound risotto. It absorbs liquid readily and yields more in proportion to its original volume than most other varieties. Because of its size, it takes longer to cook, but it has to be closely watched in the final stages of cooking to keep it from becoming overcooked. It is the overwhelming choice of Piedmontese and Lombard cooks. Arborio’s handsome size and superior clinging qualities make it the classic risotto rice for any careful cook.
A stubbier grain than Arborio, Vialone Nano is classified as semifino. Its production is only about one quarter that of Arborio and nearly all of it goes to the Veneto where its firmness and rapid cooking time make the favourite of Venetian cooks.
Carnaroli is the aristocrat of Italian rice varieties for risotto, but like all true aristocrats, it is in short supply. A major rice-grower of my acquaintance harvests so little Carnaroli that he packages his entire production as Christmas gifts for his friends. It does exist, however, and, if not abundant, is available for export, although at a substantially higher price than other varieties. Like Arborio, Carnaroli is a large, plump grain classified as superfino. It produces a risotto of lovely flavour with a consistency that has just the right ‘cling’, while the grains cook to a perfect, chewy firmness.