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Sicilian arancini: a complete guide

Sicilian arancini: a complete guide

by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins 21 March 2017

Whether you know them as arancine or arancini, these delicious, quintessentially Sicilian snacks are a fantastic example of how cultural influence has shaped the Italian island. Marisa Raniolo Wilkins charts their history and shares where to taste the best in eastern Sicily.


If you happen to be staying in one of the many beautiful villas on the stunning island of Sicily and sit two locals down at a table – especially one from Palermo, and another from Catania – the talk of course will turn to food. You can also bet they will argue about the authenticity and the ingredients of the signature dishes of their respective regions.

Traditionally, Sicilians won’t compromise on food. In the kitchen it is either right or wrong. They will often only eat what they are used to, passionately devoted to their favourite dishes as cooked by their relatives and related to their home town – Sicilians are proud of their heritage, loyal to their regions and attached to their mothers.

Take a snack like rice balls for example. Not only will Sicilians disagree about their essential ingredients and their proper shape – depending on their region – they will even dispute their gender, which determines how their name is spelt and pronounced. Are they male or female? In Palermo these deceptively simple balls of saffron-flavoured rice moulded around tasty morsels of meat, peas and tomato ragù are considered to be feminine, so they are called arancina and two or more are arancine. But in Catania they are thought to be masculine, and so they are called arancino, and a pair or more are arancini.

What is the provocation? The cause could lie in Sicily’s ancient history of colonisation stretching back to the times when Carthaginians, Arabs and Normans conquered the western and northern coasts, making Palermo the capital; while Greeks colonised the east coast concentrating their city states on Catania and Syracuse in the south east. Only to be supplanted by the Romans who turned Toarmina into a party town – which it still is today.

Mount Etna
Could the conical shape of the arancini made in eastern Sicily be inspired by Mount Etna?
Ragusa
Sicily is an island that's been conquered and ruled by many different nations over the years, resulting in a diverse, exciting culture

Cultural crossroads

The best arancini in east Sicily

Ragusa

La Grotta – 8 Via Cartia Giovanni

Di Pasquale – 104 Corso Vittorio Veneto

Bar Del Corso – 323 Corso Italia

Polar Bar – 36A Via Benedetto Croce

Punta Secca

Gli Arancini di Montalbano – Via Fratelli Bandiera

Ristorante Scjabica – Piazza del Faro (very good fish arancini)

Taormina

Strit Fud – 23 Via di Giovanni

Da Cristina – 2 Via Strabone

Acireale

Pasticceria Vecchia Stazione – 27 Piazza Monsignor

Il Rosticcere – 24 Corso Savoia

Catania

Pasticceria Savia – 302 Via Etnea

Pasticceria Spinella – 292/298 Via Etnea

Augusta

Bar Max – 305 Via Megara

Bar Daniel – Monte Tauro

Syracuse

Bar Midolo – 86 Corso Umberto I

The food of Sicily reflects the diversity of cultures that overlaid the island during the past two millennia. Hold an arancino in your hand and you are holding an edible artefact of this island’s history. It can only be Sicilian.

Its origins are an amalgam, perhaps traced back first to the Greeks who introduced the cheese. Then the Arabs who contributed the rice and saffron, and the way that a ball of rice would be eaten with the hand accompanied or followed by a scoop of meat. The style of cooking and the Italian word ragù derives from the French ragout – a slow-cooked, French-style stew. Where did the French come from? They supplanted the Spaniards, taking their turn at dominion over this jewel of the Mediterranean. It was the Spaniards, ruling the Kingdom of Two Sicilies (which included Naples) who introduced the tomato, a product of the New World, so esteemed in southern Italian cuisine.

To take it even further, the arancini could be a miniature version of the towering rice timbales as cooked by the Monsù, the trained French chefs in the baronial kitchens during Bourbon Baroque times.

Sicilians love myths, exaggerations and stories, and so the story goes that in the thirteenth century, Frederick II of Swabia and the King of Sicily, was responsible for the original arancino. Frederick was said to be a keen hunter with a healthy appetite. He wanted a rounded meal for when he was on the prowl. Simple – take a handful of cooked rice, create a hollow, fill it, encase it in more rice and there you have it. A satisfying, self-contained meal, that was portable and could be eaten hot or cold.

But what is the proper shape for an arancino/arancina? In Catania and eastern Sicily arancini are conical or pear-shaped. Stretch the imagination a little and the Catanese arancini could resemble the peak of a mountain. Is this to pay homage to Mount Etna, on whose flanks Catania is clustered? The name of this ancient, forbidding mountain comes from the Greek Aitho, which means ‘to burn’. The active volcano, sacred in classical literature and mythology, towers above Catania and the surrounding countryside – just one of the reasons why so many holiday on the island in stunning villas.

If not the mountain, then the making determines the shape. To form an arancino about a tablespoon of rice is placed in the palm of the hand and flattened into a disc. The filling is then placed into the centre of the disc and the rice is formed around the filling with upright fingers to encase it completely.

Of course, on the north coast around Palermo with its Moorish and Norman influences), arancina are round, the shape resembles an orange – like the archetypal fruit of Sicily. Because the Roman Empire was so extensive, the Romans knew about oranges through their travels, however it was during the Arab period that citrus fruit were first cultivated in Sicily.

Arancini's evolution

Arancini have gone through many changes over time. According to one food writer and historian from Catania, they were initially rice croquettes shaped like cucumbers and much larger than they are today. Some were made in monasteries, and over time became smaller in size. Originally they were probably fried in lard, and why not? Some of the best cannoli, another Sicilian delicacy closely associated with Catania, are still fried in lard.

Originally, all Sicilian rice dishes were made with boiled rice. Risotto was the regional speciality of northern Italy. Italians speak about keeping l’anima (the soul) in pasta or rice. It means that it must never be overcooked. Purists will tell you that no eggs are needed to bind the rice nor as a dip for the arancino. Traditionally, arancini are dipped in a pastella, a batter of flour and water. This coats the rice before the breadcrumbs and makes the shell crisp and robust and keeps the filling soft.

Arancini
True arancini are shaped by hand, before being fried until crisp
Arancini
Traditionally, arancini would be either round or conical, but today they come in many different shapes in all sorts of flavours

It is a salato – a salty snack as opposed to a dolce – a sweet snack. Many English words have snuck into the Italian language so you will now see arancini described as a snack food or street food (or Strit Fud as one bar in Toarmina is named). They are also referred to as a stuzzichino, a nibble, a bite – tapas-like.

Arancini can be found in a panificio (a bakery which makes bread), a pasticceria (a pastry shop), a rosticceria (a rotisserie, usually a takeaway joint which sells rustici (rustic food)) or in a friggeria (which sells predominantly fried food), stalls and fairs. They are very popular in bars, the focus of daily life in Italy: they will sell coffee, gelati, granite, soft drinks, alcohol, aperitivi, pastries and snacks. Moving with the times, Italians have embraced the more western concept of a bar; part restaurant and a hip place to drink alcohol. Very often arancini are just wrapped in a serviette and handed over to the customer to eat standing up at the counter. They are unsurpassable finger food and the perfect accompaniment for a drink. Generally, when accompanied with drinks in this modern age, they are often the size of golf balls.

Flavours and varieties

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If you want to make your own arancini you can have a local cook teach you how in one of The Thinking Traveller's selection of villas, such as the beautiful La Limonaia. Discover more at www.thethinkingtraveller.com  

These days there are multiple versions of arancini in Sicily with different fillings other than the classic ragù, and whether they’re in western or eastern Sicily they are round. One enduring favourite is made with buttered rice, cheese, Béchamel sauce and prosciutto cotto. These are similar to the round Roman suppli, a rice croquette which takes its name from the long ‘telephone wires’ of melted mozzarella that stretch out when you take a bite. Sicilians will tell you that the Romans stole them from Sicilians, not forgetting that Rome ruled and plundered Sicily for centuries.

But whatever inventive and creative variations find their way into the heart of an arancino, a patriotic Sicilian will always demonstrate nostalgia for the classic arancino of l’antica tradizione (ancient tradition) – filled with ragù, the type one’s nonna or mamma may once have made or that was served in the local bar. This is the modern age. Arancini are now made with different types of meats, sausages and may contain small goods such as speck or ‘ndjua. There are numerous vegetarian fillings – porcini or spinach with Béchamel sauce and cheese, or aubergine and tomato salsa (in the style of pasta cooked alla Norma). There are even arancini catering to vegans.

There are seafood arancini where the gold of saffron is replaced with squid ink. Sweet versions are stuffed with Nutella or ricotta.Pistachio nuts (grown in Bronte around Etna) are an essential ingredient in many Sicilian recipes both savoury and sweet and arancini are no exception.

It may dismay the traditionalists, but food styles and recipes aren’t set in stone. Different cultures exert other influences. Sicily, more than anywhere, has been exposed to variations and embraced culinary innovation. Disputes about the best arancini continue and there are competitions between rival chefs from western and eastern Sicily. This year in the south-eastern city of Noto, the tiny Baroque masterpiece inland from Syracuse, there was a competition between a chef from Palermo and one from Noto – province against province. Was the popular vote decided by taste buds or patriotism, innovation or tradition? There will always be a gulf between Palermo and Catania and when it comes to arancini, even only a couple of letters difference in the small island of Sicily are significant.

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