Once upon a time Dom and I journeyed to a far away land.
We traveled to a destination that spoke to our souls. We vacationed in a place that’s as much known for its antiquities as it is its food. A far away place that felt a little like home. A place where the people are warm and their spirits, generous. A place that fed us and inspired us, that filled us up but left us wanting more. This place is Italy.
To experience the beauty and majesty of Italy’s famous landmarks, churches, and cathedrals, world-renowned artwork, and natural environment, we couldn’t help but be in awe of its offerings. But equally impressive is the centuries old effort that the country (still) employs to preserve everything that it holds near and dear, allowing its residents and visitors alike to enjoy and savor the history and grandeur of its land that is steeped in culture, beauty, and drama. From Trevi Fountain to the Roman Pantheon, from St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, to Ponte Vecchio and the Ufizzi, and so many sights in-between…there is something for everyone.
Of course, I’m mentioning some of Italy’s most famous destinations, but I have to admit, it’s actually the smaller, less traveled roads, the quieter, less publicized piazzas that really spoke to us. These camera shy towns captured our hearts and Won’t. Let. Go. I’m sure we could visit Italy a hundred times and never see the same “Italy” twice. But there was one tiny town in particular, Testaccio, that exposed us to some of the best food we have ever eaten, and certainly the best arancini aka suppli aka rice balls, we will ever have. This is a place I do hope to see again and again.
I have not been able to get these arancini out of my mind for the last seven months. They haunt my dreams. It all began during a four hour food tour, yes, four hour, that we took in this quaint little neighborhood just outside of Rome. It was there that our lives changed forever. We were introduced to these crispy little beauties. Crunchy, and golden on the outside, creamy, decadent, and mouth-watering on the inside. These particular arancini (or suppli, as they were calling them) were made with fork tender braised short ribs with juices that tenderized and flavored the rice in such a way that, well, I have not been able to get them out of my mind all these months later. The chefs just don’t know how they torture us. Not nice.
So while in Italy, I ended up having an arancini just about everyday, okay, maybe more than one a day, but hey – when people offer you their pride and joy, it’s just rude to say no. I did it for the people.
So here we are, seven months later, and I’m finally getting to it. It was very important that I start my own personal arancini journey with a tried and true, traditional, authentic recipe. So I went to one of the best…Lidia Matticchio Bastianich.
These awesome arancini, which by the way, means, “small oranges” referring to the shape and size of these rice balls, hail from Sicily, but you can find them all around Rome and Naples too. This particular recipe uses a meat and pea ragu as its filling. I modified Lidia’s recipe just a bit because I had a little leftover sauce so I used it to make the ragu.
The next time we visit Italy, the first thing I’d like to do is head right to Caffe Testaccio. We’ll grab a quiet little table in the piazza, a couple of icy Peronis, and a platter full of crispy arancini.
It will make for a beautiful snack and a perfect date.
For the Ragu
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lb. ground beef
1 cup chopped onion
2 cups tomato sauce, and more for serving
1/2 tsp. crushed hot red pepper
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
For the Rice
5 cups Chicken Stock or canned reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups short-grain rice, such as Arborio
4 large eggs
2 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese
To Coat and Fry the Rice Balls
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups fine, dry bread crumbs, with Italian seasoning
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup olive oil
Heat olive oil in a 3 qt. saucepan over medium heat.
Crumble in the meat and the onion.
Cook stirring often, until the meat and onion begin to brown (and the water from the meat in evaporated).
Season the beef and onion slightly with salt.
Add two cups of tomato sauce.
Adjust the heat to simmer and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 30 minutes.
Stir in the peas and cook until they are very tender, about 10 minutes for frozen peas, and 20 minutes for fresh peas.
The finished ragu should be dense and reduced.
Remove and cool to room temperature.
While the ragu is cooling, make the rice. Bring the stock and 2 Tbsp. olive oil to a boil in a 3 qt. saucepan.
Stir in the rice, return the stock to boil, then adjust the heat to simmering.
Cook the rice, uncovered, until al dente – tender but firm – about 12 minutes.
Drain the rice and spread it out on a tray to cool to room temperature.
When the rice is cool, scrape it into a mixing bowl and beat in the 4 eggs and the grated cheese.
Take a handful (about 1/3 cup) of cooled rice mixture and shape it into a small ball in the palm of your hand.
Make a well in the center and drop in 1 Tbsp. of the ragu.
Work the rice so that it completely encloses the ragu, and reform the rice into a smooth ball.
Continue forming arancine with the remaining rice and ragu.
Whisk the 3 eggs in a mixing bowl. Spread the flour on one plate and the bread crumbs on another, in an even layer.
Dredge each rice ball in the flour to coat all sides, tap off the excess flour and then roll them in the beaten egg to coat, allowing any excess egg to drip back into the bowl. Finally, roll the rice balls in the bread crumbs, pressing lightly to coat evenly.
Transfer each rice ball to a clean baking sheet and prepare to fry.
Pour the oil(s) into a deep skillet.
Insert a deep-frying thermometer in the oil and heat the oil over medium heat to 375 degrees. Once the oil reaches temperature, adjust the heat under the pot to maintain a steady temperature.
Carefully slip a few of the rice balls into the oil. Fry, turning as necessary with tongs or a slotted spoon, until crisp and golden brown on all sides, about 4 minutes.
Remove to a paper-towel lined baking sheet, keeping them hot in a 200 degree oven if you like. Fry the remaining rice balls.
The arancine can be served hot or at room temperature.
*Recipe adapted from Lidia’s Stuffed Rice Balls.