Blueberry and Chive Risotto; find the recipe link below. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

I’m not normally drawn to purple food, but one afternoon I was served a plate of risotto made with fresh blueberries at a restaurant called Pillhof, in the Italian Alpine region of Alto Adige. My encounter with purple rice was not love at first bite, but with each forkful, as I wrapped my brain around the incongruous flavors, my affection grew exponentially. Before I was halfway finished, my thoughts drifted away from the table. I was having a double Proustian memory of both the ripe summer fruit of my childhood and my clumsy, novice attempts to master the art of risotto making — namely to impress a girl who remained woefully unimpressed.

Blueberry risotto may be a strange dish to inspire a madeleine moment, but then Alto Adige is a peculiar place, a corner of Italy where the locals speak German (and call the area Südtirol or South Tyrol) and where people still feel nostalgic for the Austrian Empire, to which they belonged until World War I.

Likewise, I am peculiar. Every year, for a stretch of July and August, I become almost fruitarian. There have been days when I reach dinnertime and realize I have eaten nothing but fresh melons, stone fruit and berries all day. And sometimes I want fruit for dinner, too.

So the idea of using fruit in savory cooking always appeals to me, and I am on a hunt for recipes year-round. I love grilled peaches and melon gazpacho and citrus salads and pappardelle with lemon-basil sauce. One of my favorite tapas is José Andrés’s nectarines topped with anchovies, and one of my favorite local pastas is the strawberry-tomato spaghetti from Rose’s Luxury. So the idea of making risotto with not just berries, but also cantaloupe or midsummer peaches or late-summer pears, seemed deeply appealing.

However much I like to experiment, though, I am also a neurotic about tradition and authenticity. In years of traveling around Italy, I had never seen a berry risotto. But when my lunch companions in Alto Adige told me the dish is typical in the Italian Alps, I was intrigued. I immediately found several recipes for strawberry, apple and blueberry risottos in the classic, best-selling cookbook “Il Cucchiaio d’Argento” (“The Silver Spoon”) — essentially Italy’s “Joy of Cooking.” I also discovered a spate of fruit risottos in Italian cooking magazines from the late 2000s.

Yet as I delved deeper, asking around to Italian-food friends, I soon learned that the topic of fruit risotto is a fraught one. Most shut down the discussion immediately. “Preposterous!” some said, grimacing and holding their stomachs. When I pressed further, several acknowledged that berry risottos had had a minor moment of popularity a few years ago, on well-watched television cooking shows in Italy. “But I’ve never tasted it,” each of them said. “It sounds very strange.”

One friend, a winemaker named Stefano, grew so incensed at the idea of fruit risotto that he uttered a common vulgar slang that I will not translate here, except to say that it basically means “that’s awful.”


Peach and Pancetta Risotto. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

Amid such mixed messages, I arrived at the conclusion that fruit risotto is definitely a thing, but it’s the sort of thing that most Italians won’t talk about. Perhaps fruit risotto is sort of like, say, television celebrity David Hasselhoff might be for Americans. And much like a quest involving Hasselhoff, going to a German-speaking place to get to the bottom of things seemed like the right thing to do. I returned to Alto Adige (Südtirol), where I had originally eaten blueberry risotto, to investigate.

Even in the Italian Alps, I faced evasiveness. I initially emailed IDM Südtirol, an agency that promotes the region’s products and tourism, to ask about fruit risotto. A spokesman declined even to address it, responding, “I’d suggest ‘risotto with speck’ which is what reflects our local cuisine.”

I had better luck with a food writer named Yrma Ylenia Pace, an editor for the lifestyle magazine La Casa in Ordine, who published a recipe for risotto with wild berries on her blog A Fiamma Dolce. That recipe won an award for “most beautiful risotto with Italian ingredients” at Milan’s Expo 2015, in a contest sponsored by a large rice company.

Ylenia Pace lives in Alto Adige’s neighboring Alpine region of Trentino, where she says berry risotto is common. “It’s a recipe that plays on a very attractive contrast, acid and sweet on the palate, creating an emotion,” she says.


Pear, Gorgonzola and Pistachio Risotto. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

Ylenia Pace’s enthusiasm bolstered my own experiments at home. These were not sweet, dessertlike dishes. I made tasty, successful risottos with peaches, cantaloupe and pears, respectively. In all cases, I introduced a significant savory element: pancetta with the peaches, nuts and Gorgonzola with the pears, and the classic pairing of prosciutto with the cantaloupe. I also always make my own vegetable broth to add to the rice, a recipe using lots of leeks and root vegetables that create an earthier, more flavorful yet lighter broth than you can buy.

When I used stone fruit and melons as though they were tomatoes, including fruit in risotto and with pasta began to make a lot of sense. As for tradition, everything is relative. Remember that the ubiquitous tomato (a fruit, of course) did not appear in an Italian pasta recipe until 1839, centuries after people were eating macaroni.


Melon and Prosciutto Risotto. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Finally, after I’d made many fruit risottos, I got a chance to revisit Pillhof, the restaurant where I’d discovered blueberry risotto. On that day, they served their blueberry risotto with halibut. Traditional? “No,” said Daniel Sanir, Pillhof’s chef. “But I like to make something new.”

As with any classic dish, there is plenty of room for debate on technique and preparation. In this case, the main sticking point is when to add the fruit. Sanir insists, for his blueberry risotto, that you need to put the fruit in at the start of the 20-plus minutes of risotto cooking. Ylenia Pace, on the other hand, suggests putting the berries in near the end.

I lean more toward Ylenia Pace’s approach. While I definitely don’t want chunks, most fleshy fruit breaks down and cooks into a sauce fairly quickly and easily.

What may be less easy is persuading traditionalists to try your fruit risotto. Sanir says it can be a challenge, but the recipes typically win people over: “Sometimes the customers think, ‘I don’t know, this is strange with the berries.’

“But then they eat it, and 90 percent of them like it a lot.”

Wilson is author of the new Kindle Single “Spaghetti on the Wall.” He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.