Villa d’Este Reveals the Recipe for Frank Sinatra’s Favorite Risotto

Article updated in 2018.

In the March 2007 issue of Dream of Italy, we go behind the “gastronomic” scenes of Lake Como’s exclusive Villa d’Este to discover what makes the hotel’s culinary offerings so tempting. It turns out that Villa d’Este has two secret weapons: Executive Chef Luciano Parolari, also known as the “King of Risotto” and his much-heralded repertoire of risotto recipes, which have been wowing famous and non-famous guests alike for decades. Parolari and the hotel’s longtime director of public relations, Jean Govoni Salvadore, have collected the recipes and related stories in the new book, Tales of Risotto: Culinary Recipes from Villa d’Este (Glitterati, 2006). They have generously given us permission to reprint the following recipe (Frank Sinatra’s favorite):

Risotto with Artichokes

This is a risotto that for many years could only be made during the artichoke season, which is the month of March. That was true in the days when Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner visited the Villa d’Este. Of course Frank was of Italian descent, but he hadn’t actually visited Italy until he came to Villa d’Este. At this point he was too famous to travel incognito, so he needed a place like Villa d’Este to which he could retreat in comfort. Add to that the brewing scandal with Ava Gardner, and he had very few options — especially if he wanted to visit Italy.

So during the early 1950s they arrived in a flurry at Villa d’Este ready to partake of Italian fare. They were offered risotto at the formal Verandah Restaurant — the staff wanted to make sure they had an authentic northern Italian experience. Sinatra was dubious; Gardner was willing — so the very special seasonal Risotto with Artichokes was prepared and offered in a formal flourish.

The diners were ecstatic. Who could not love Risotto con Carciofi? In fact, from that time on when Sinatra returned (always, alas, sans Gardner) he made sure to make his first stop the formal Verandah and his first bite Risotto con Carciofi!

Serves 4 to 6

6 artichoke hearts
4 ½ tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 cups chicken stock
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
1 cup Italian spumante (sparkling wine)
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley

  1. Cut the artichokes into very thin slices. Set aside half of the slices. Melt ½ tablespoon of the butter with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the artichokes and sauté for 3 minutes, or until soft in the center. Set aside.
  2. Bring the stock to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat and keep at a bare simmer.
  3. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until softened and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes, until every grain is coated with butter and oil. Then add ½ cup of the spumante and stir until absorbed.
  4. Add 1 cup of the stock and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Add the uncooked sliced artichokes. Continue adding stock, about ½ cup at a time, stirring frequently and making sure all the liquid is absorbed before adding more stock. Cook until the rice is just tender and creamy but still al dente, 15 to 20 minutes. You may have leftover stock.
  5. Add the remaining ½ cup of the spumante and stir well. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the remaining 3 tablespoons butter, the Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Let the risotto rest for a minute or two and serve on individual plates, topped with the sautéed artichokes and a sprinkling of the parsley. This risotto can also be served with any kind of Italian sausage, either grilled or sautéed with sage and butter.

For more on Villa d’Este and its cuisine, see the March 2007 issue of Dream of Italy. For more on visiting Italy’s Lakes region, see Dream of Italy’s Special Report: The Lakes, which can be purchased individually or is available along with over 60 other back issues as part of our subscription.