The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Cooking  / Fish Risotto for Christmas Eve in Venice

Fish Risotto for Christmas Eve in Venice

eel sold at the Rialto fish market in Venice

Eel sold at the Rialto fish market in Venice. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Risotto de la “Visilia” is a typical Christmas Eve dinner preparation in Venice 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.

This risotto dish probably evolved from a simple fish pilaf, one using, perhaps, the small ugly fish of the lagoon called , then the eel was added and finally the beans. If you are unable to find eel, which is usually available fresh only around Christmastime, then 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 age 84 on Dec. 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 believe that the bean is a New World migrant. 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 16th century, being first illustrated and described by the artist Hieronymous 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.

Risotto de la “Visilia”

Serves 6


⅔ cup (about 6 ounces) dried borlotti, pinto or Roman beans, picked over, soaked in water to cover for several hours, and drained

6 tablespoons ( ¾ stick) unsalted butter

1 onion, very finely chopped

1 celery stalk, very finely chopped

1 carrot, scraped 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 a 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 and cook until the fish can flake easily, about 30 minutes (but don’t flake the fish; keep them whole).

3. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and return 1 quart of it to the casserole or saucepan. Stir in the puréed beans and mix well. Remove the fish and eel from the strainer and reserve, keeping warm, to serve as a second course.

4. Bring the broth to a boil over medium-high heat and add the rice. Cook, uncovered, until the rice is soft, about 20 minutes. Stir in the remaining butter, remaining beans, and the cheese and serve.

Eel sold at the Rialto fish market in Venice. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).