L’isola dei pescatori

Reachable by bridge from Mazzorbo, Burano is the most populous of the three ‘native’ Venetian islands. Most famous for its rows of brightly painted houses, historic handmade lace, and a campanile on a lean so severe as to be rivalled only by Pisa, the island is also well known on account of its fishermen. Early each morning the fishing boats still set off into the lagoon, and when they come back, they bring with them a catch used to prepare a long unchanged and entirely unique risotto recipe.

The sand goby is a small, almost translucent, and very bony little fish, not particularly prized for its flesh. Hovering about as they do however, just above the surface of the sand, they are rather vulnerable to being swept into fishermen’s nets! Loathing to waste, thrifty pescatori have historically put them to use in stock – boiling the goby on their boats in seawater, then adding this to risotto rice. The fish themselves are strained from the stock so all that remains of them in the finished dish is the surprisingly delicate flavour they impart.

Gò risotto (‘gò’ being the Venetian name for goby) can be sampled only on Burano, and only at a couple of restaurants. Most famous is Da Romano, where the unchanged recipe is a carefully guarded secret that has been handed down over five generations. Embellished only with some finely chopped parsley (which even then, I suspect, is only to highlight the otherwise pure white of the rice), the soupy risotto seems perfectly distilled from its surrounds – delicate white like lace, briny like the waters of the lagoon, and blissfully unchanged despite the passage of time.

I've spent a lot of time this past week researching the secrets of gò risotto. I gleaned tiny nuggets of information from reluctant Burano restaurateurs; I scoured old Venetian cookery books. I learnt that the gò need to be treated carefully while cooking, that they need to be left undisturbed at the bottom of the pan while they simmer or else can release a bitter flavour. I learnt that sea water offers the perfect level of saltiness to the base broth, and that, as well as being what fisherman traditionally used for their brodo, some swear by it still today…

It took a stroll down to the Pescheria di Rialto however, for me to realise that all the while, I’d been overlooking the most important thing. No fishmonger, not even those at the Rialto, bothers to sell goby fish – after all, this is the point, with their many fins, copious bones, and meagre flesh, they are really not good for much!

Further research, fortunately, turned up a slightly more marketable local substitute – paganéi fish. These can be bought at the Rialto… sometimes! Also suitable, and available away from the shores of the Venetian lagoon, are other sand dwelling flat fish – sole, lemon sole, plaice, or sand dab. (Although, if you are using these, consider making use of the offcuts only (head bones, skin), because, unlike the tiny sand goby, sole, plaice, and similar fish do have delicious fillets which are far too good for the stockpot).

I’ve added clams to my version of this risotto, which, while not entirely traditional, seems to improve the quality of the stock, intensifying the briny flavour. In all other ways however, I have followed the Burano tradition – this means cheese is in, but lemon out (a non-negotiable clause!), and don’t be tempted to skip the buttery manteca at the end, it’s all about that smooth, white texture…


(Serves 4)

  • 500g of fresh flat fish offcuts (sole, plaice, dab etc.)
  • 400g fresh clams (vongole)
  • ½ a fennel bulb, fronds and all – roughly chopped
  • 1 celery stick – roughly chopped
  • 2 brown onions – 1 chopped finely for the risotto, 1 chopped roughly for the stock
  • 2 cloves garlic – crushed
  • 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 60g salted butter
  • 220g risotto rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano)
  • 200ml white wine
  • Sea salt and white pepper
  • Small bunch of parsley – finely chopped
  • 40g parmesan cheese – finely grated

Make the fish stock by heating 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot, and frying the fish trimmings along with the roughly chopped onion, fennel and celery. After a couple of minutes of frying everything together on high heat, season with salt and white pepper, cover with 600ml of water, place a lid on the pan, and cook for about 30 minutes. Once cooked, remove the fish stock from the heat, strain through a fine sieve, discard the used trimmings and vegetables, and then transfer the liquid to a deep saucepan to keep warm.

To prepare the clams, place these in a wide pan with 150ml of water, and half of the white wine. Sprinkle with a little salt, cover with a lid, and place over a medium-high heat. Once boiling, let the clams cook for about 7 minutes, or until all the shells are opened, (discard any shells that do not open during cooking).

Strain the juice from the cooked clams, and add this to the pot containing the fish stock. Then pick the meat from the majority of the clamshells and put this aside in a small bowl. Leave just a few shells with the meat intact to garnish the finished dish.

Begin the risotto by warming the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, along with one third of the butter in a wide, heavy-based pan over medium heat. Once the butter is completely melted, add the finely chopped onion and reduce the heat to low.

Cook the onion slowly until soft, and without colouring it. After about 8 minutes of very gentle cooking, add the crushed garlic, and stir frequently to stop any sticking.

When the onions and garlic are soft and translucent, turn the heat up a little and pour in the risotto rice. Fry for around 2 minutes, or until the rice begins to look translucent at the edges.

Next, slosh in the wine and stir vigorously until all the liquid is absorbed.

Place the pot containing the strained stocks over a low-medium heat on an adjacent burner, then begin to add the warm stock, one ladle at a time to the risotto. After each addition, stir with a wooden spoon until most of the liquid is absorbed before adding another.

After around 16 minutes of cooking, add the picked clam meat to the risotto. Stir to heat this through.

Meanwhile, in a small pan, over low heat, gently re-warm the garnishing clams, sprinkling these with a little water to refresh. 

After 18-20 minutes the rice should be properly cooked – to check this, have a quick taste. If the grains are still hard to the bite in the middle, add more stock and continue to stir. Ideally, the texture of the risotto at this point will be loose and creamy, soupy almost, and while each grain should still be distinct, the texture should no longer be rice-like.

Once satisfied that your rice is cooked and the consistency is right, turn off the heat and immediately add the Parmesan cheese and remaining butter. Give everything a very quick stir, then swiftly pop a lid on the pan and put aside to stand for one minute. Italians have a special verb for this step – ‘mantecare,’ which as far as I can tell, is pretty much only used for cooking, and means ‘to allow to mingle and become creamy’!

Post-manteca, stir the risotto and check the seasoning. If it needs any extra salt, add some now. A little white pepper may also be added.

To serve, ladle the creamy risotto into warmed dishes and place a couple of the warm vongole on top of each. Scatter with finely chopped parsley, (the green flecks really do help to emphasise the whiteness of the rice!), and serve immediately.