What does rice have to do with Sicilian and Neapolitan cooking? Rice is one of the few foods that, while grown and eaten all over the world, has managed to maintain a strong, unique identity in each different region – just think of Asian rice bowls, Spanish paella and Italian risotto. Not particularly famous outside of Italy, Arancini look like big rice balls, about the size of an orange (the Italian world arancia means “orange”) – whose center is filled with a savory mixture. Common fillings include: meat sauce with peas; prosciutto and cheeses like provola, mozzarella or pecorino; eggplant and tomatoes; diced capers. The outer layer of rice is then covered with a crunch crust and the entire rice ball is then fried in oil.
Also called Sartù, Arancina, Supplì or rice frittata, the Arancino has been a part of traditional Southern Italian cuisine for several centuries. In the Campania region, the arancino was first introduced into the Kingdom of Naples by the Aragones who called them, simply, “rice balls”. It seems that the term Arancina was first coined in Sicily, where several regions and provinces claim to be the homeland of the dish. There are even those who sustain that Milan’s signature dish of Saffron Risotto is nothing more than a poorly executed arancina that fell apart on a plate – the Milanese, of course, don’t agree.
The traditional Arancino comes in two main variants: the first is perfectly round in shape filled with a ragu sauce of meat, mozzarella and peas; the second is called al burro (“with butter”) and has a longer, pear-like shape and is filled with diced mozzarella and prosciutto and grated cheese.
Maria De Lucia, considered one of the queens of Neapolitan friend food, shares one of the secrets for arancini from her beloved pizzeria Da Carmi Niello.
“The trick is to prepare the rice and ragù sauce the night before and put everything together when it’s cold. Then you have to fry it perfectly so the center softens and the mozzarella melts.”
In the Sicilian city of Catania, the Arancino alla Norma – with eggplant – and a version with Bronte pistachios are among the most popular. In other regions the fillings might include mushrooms, sausage, gorgonzola, chicken, swordfish and even squid ink. All throughout Southern Italy, it’s quite common to find street vendors who sell them from carts – still warm and dripping with oil. For the festival of Saint Lucia, which takes place on December 13th in Palermo, the city fills up with stands, carts and frying kiosks with the aroma of hundreds of Arancini that are prepared for the occasion. For this holiday many even make arancini in a sweet version, covered with sugar and cacao.