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Arancini: Italian Rice Balls

This was such a fun project. In looking up street foods in Italy as part of our occasional series, I found Arancini. That is the Italian word for little oranges, referring to the size and shape of the rice ball, and also to the abundance of oranges in the south of Italy where this lovely food originated. Arancini started as street food in Sicily, but now appear in restaurants and small pizza places all over Italy.

For years my dear friend Roz, whose family hails from Sicily, spoke of “Rice Ball Day” when she and her sister and brothers carried on a family tradition of making rice balls in the weeks before Christmas. I have since found out that it was in celebration of St. Lucy’s Day, December 13th, which coincided with the birthday of their grandfather. It was traditional to eat grains and not bread on that day to celebrate the end of a famine in Sicily when ships finally arrived in the harbor loaded with grain.

As with much of Italian cuisine there are regional variations of everything. The recipe here is the Sicilian version, sort of following the recipe provided by Roz’s mom and pictured here, with some minor tweaks. The cooks of her generation didn’t use recipes per se, but we gleaned enough from this and word of mouth instructions to provide the following, delicious arancini.

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Yield: This recipe made 20 rice balls
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 cups Arborio rice
4 oz dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped onion
40 oz chicken broth (approx.)
2 tsp salt
1 egg


The Rice

Heat the olive oil and butter in large pot and saute onion until soft and translucent. Add Arborio rice and stir together with onion until coated. Add white wine and then hot broth (keep it hot throughout process so as not to slow down cooking) a ladle at a time, letting rice absorb liquid before adding more, until all liquid is absorbed. Remove rice from heat and let cool. Add beaten egg to rice and mix thoroughly. This can be done ahead of time and kept in refrigerator until ready to use. You should be able to form a sticky ball of rice at this point.

I might add that this method is the way risotto is made, the ladies of Sicily just cooked the arborio in boiling water the way you cook any other rice.

The Filling

We filled our balls with the traditional meat gravy consisting of ground beef, veal and pork chopped very fine, in a thick tomato sauce so as not to ooze out, along with a small piece of fresh mozzarella cheese.

Using an ice cream scoop to assure uniform size, take a scoop of rice in hand and form a ball. Make a depression in the ball with your thumb and place a piece of cheese and about a teaspoon of meat sauce in the space and close the rice around it. This was easier than I thought!

The Finale

Set out a bowl of flour, a bowl with 2 beaten eggs, and a bowl of fine bread crumbs. Roll each ball in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs.

In deep pot with vegetable oil heated to about 375 degrees, lower the balls into hot oil and fry for about 10 minutes until golden brown. In Tillie’s recipe, she recommends having the oil deep enough so that the balls are completely covered and do not have to be turned. When crisp and golden, remove from oil and place on paper towel.

The arancini should be eaten right away, but can be kept warm in the oven for a bit, until all are fried.

These were so good right out of the oil, we found ourselves eating them out of one hand while holding a glass of wine in the other.

Roz did want me to point out that when they were children, their mother served them their rice balls, cut in half and sprinkled with a bit of sugar, but she has never been able to find out what the reasoning was, other than to get the children to eat.

If you would like to fancy them up a bit, they can be served on a small plate on top of tomato sauce or béchamel sauce. Some cafes also make them with mushrooms, pistachios or eggplant as a specialty.

Many thanks to Roz for her lovely trip down memory lane and also to her brother Ron for his interesting and insightful research into the origin of this wonderful “street food” and a bit of history too.

by: Deirdre Cooper
Deirdre is a culinary enthusiast who enjoys traveling, gardening, and needless to say works wonders in the kitchen. Deirdre, a native New Yorker, now resides in Ambler, and can often be found frequently entertaining family and friends. Enjoy!
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