TECHNICALLY, it's just pudding. But mention the word budino to an Italian chef and eyes light up, chattering hands dance through the air and unabashed creativity is unfurled.
"Budino is BUDINO! Its big flavor hits your palate at once, so pure it dissolves right on your tongue," says Nicola Mastronardi, chef at Vincenti. "Nothing else is in the way -- just custard and concentrated flavor."
A budino can be sweet, like the creamy chocolate one at La Botte in Santa Monica, or savory, like the Fulvi pecorino budino Evan Kleiman recently offered at Angeli Caffe in L.A. It can involve bread, as Kleiman's does, or polenta, as in the creamy, soft cake-like budino with a lemony brulee crust at All' Angelo, the new Italian restaurant in West Hollywood. It can be "like a souffle, or flan or panna cotta," says Mastronardi, "but much more."
There are lots of compelling budini around town these days. But a few really stand out as impossible to resist.
At Mozza, Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali's pizzeria, the butterscotch budino -- with amazing, deep buttery-caramel flavor and a gorgeous, thick, velvety texture -- is topped with caramel sauce, a dollop of creme fraiche lightened with whipped cream and a pinch of fleur de sel. The whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.
Across town in Brentwood, Mastronardi is fairly obsessed with budini. When asked about how he achieved the rich flavor and beguiling texture of his chestnut budino and whether he had any more budini up his sleeve, Mastronardi flew into a frenzy of budino creation. His chocolate one, which relies on Valrhona chocolate with 70% cacao rather than the cocoa powder that's typically found in home-style chocolate budini throughout Italy, is chocolate pudding the way you always dreamed it would taste but somehow it never did. Then there's a soft, pillowy ricotta and pear budino. And an aromatic, custardy apple budino.
But Mastronardi doesn't wait till dessert to get them going -- in his hands, the budino is also a cunning first course. He tops an artichoke budino with paper-thin black truffles and baby artichokes that have been shaved and deep-fried golden brown. His flan-like Parmesan budino is heightened by tender tripe in a bright tomato ragu. A beautiful green budino gets its depth of flavor and substantial texture from green peas. (And hurray! He cheats and uses frozen ones.) That's topped with sauteed and Manila clams and sepia (cuttlefish; our recipe substitutes squid); their sweet brininess provides terrific contrast to the budino.
In Italy, savory budini have started turning up over the last few years in what Silverton calls "fancy" restaurants. Mastronardi says he was inspired by a leek and ricotta budino sauced with a lamb ragu he tasted at Al Fornello da Ricci in Puglia last spring. Traditionally, they were always sweet -- a simple pudding most often served at home.
"There was a trend in Italy maybe five years ago mixing savory and sweet, like using savory ingredients with classically sweet techniques and vice versa," says Michael Young, chef instructor at California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena and formerly executive chef at Enoteca Drago. "Basically that's what happened with the budino. It used to be a sweet dessert mainly, but not anymore."
In Italy, savory custards are likely to be called sformato rather than budino, says Kyle Phillips, an American-born food writer who translated Pellegrino Artusi's "La Scienza in Cucina e l'arte di Mangiar Bene" ("The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well"). And they're likely to be similar in texture to flan. "But if you come right down to it," he says, "sformato and budino can be similar in texture, and what you call what's on the plate is a matter of semantics."
So how do the local budino masters achieve their delicious ends? That depends on the budino.
Mastronardi uses vegetables or cheese to give flavor and texture to a basic egg custard.
When it comes to the pudding-like style of budino, the answer is cornstarch: That's how both Silverton and Mastronardi achieve their beguiling velvety or silky textures.
"To make the pudding taste more of cream than eggs, I use cornstarch so it's smoother, richer," says Mastronardi. "When you just use eggs, it's more like flan."
"Lots of times I'll think about a dish or ingredient that an Italian uses and apply another cooking technique to it," says Silverton. "Here we wanted to make a budino that's denser and creamier, like a classic butterscotch pudding. Cornstarch, a very American ingredient, gives that feel."