Monday, May 6, 2019

The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza

As with Neapolitan brick oven pizza, I've eaten tons of arancini, or Southern Italian rice balls. As with Neapolitan brick oven pizza, I thought I knew what they were.

Mizzica is Rome's most respected Sicilian bakery/snack shop, and they specialize in arancini in stunning variety:

I tried the ragù ("meat sauce made with beef, tomato, peas, and mozzarella") and the spinaci ("spinach, bechamel, mozzarella").
I was curious, of course, about the pistachio arancini, but 1. ingredient stunt casting rarely yields bona fide surprise - i.e. odds are high that it would taste like a rice ball with some pistachios chucked in - and 2. "Live another day" is the self-pacing dictum for all seasoned chowhounds.
Let's do a progressive breakdown of the ragù arancini. Notice, particularly, the jarring cube of quality beef in the last shot - not something I've ever found in my home hemisphere. This sauce is a true ragù, not a Bolognese!

Imagine a generous spoonful of classy risotto, laced with a bit of ragù, very lightly breaded and fried. Imagine if it served mostly as an alternative risotto delivery platform. That's what this was.

As a shmucky Long Island mall rat youth, I was never privy to the refined delights of risotto. If I heard someone use the word "risotto" in conjunction with "rice ball", I might have kicked him in the shins. A rice ball, per my understanding, is/was a low-class greasy, crunchy starch bomb of rice soaked with crap pizza sauce and strewn with a couple peas. I never understood the peas, but, whatever.

But this felt like I'd grabbed a rice ball from some entirely other movie. Expecting Joey Buttafuoco, I got Marcello Mastroianni. My mind immediately flashed to a dark childhood memory - the time my mother ran out of margarine and used butter on my toasted morning bagel. Rich, grown-up, phenomenally unwelcome flavors demanded my attention. It was more than I wanted, more than I needed, and I flailed in distress. If you're gonna sing me sweetly to sleep, don't send me Maria Callas in glittering evening gown and tiara and the Mormon Tabernacle Freaking Choir. Too much!

The child in me re-experienced the disorienting sensation of lost foothold, while the chowhound in me loved it. And the peas, at long last, made perfect sense. I have finally grokked the peas.

This is why we travel.

Oh, here's the spinach one:

Two bonuses:

1. Also from Micciza, these strange-looking cookies enrobed with crushed pistachio, were chewy (sort of macaroon-like, though without coconut). I found them incredibly addictive and mourn their distance:

2. And, a 15 minute walk away, I hit La Cannoleria Siciliana, part of a small chain. I realize Rome ≠ Sicily, but, hey, you wouldn't fault visitors to Manhattan for seeking out Chinese or French food. Good's good....and these were awfully good:

The profuse and unsettlingly broccoli-resembling florets of pistachio seem impossible, but it's not dyed green (click to expand photo and notice the color variation) and it tasted great - as good as benchmark cannoli at Mary's in Boston's north end and at my current fave, Sal's Pastry Shop in Stamford, CT.

One bonus bonus: Romans also do rice balls, but call them supplì. Here's one I found at Cose Buone dal Forno Trevisiol, a random neighborhood deli/cafe I'd stumbled into to use the bathroom and which was generally way better than it needed to be (Rome's great strength seems to be more in its food quality median rather than its peaks). Though this was a mere snack, I couldn't help ordering yet more slabs of Roman-style pizza al taglio (potato, naturally):

I grew up in a 100% Sicilian neighborhood assuming I, myself, was Sicilian. My sisters and I called the old Italian guy next door "Grandpa", and, coming into this as the youngest sibling, it was never clear to me that he wasn't actually our grandfather. When the other neighborhood kids started attending catechism classes, I couldn't make sense of my exclusion. "We're Jewish!" explained my parents. "I know! So what?" I replied (with, come to think of it, a bit of Sicilian swagger). It had not been made clear to me that you could be only one thing. I'd figured I was a Jewish Roman Catholic Sicilian.

The wrinkly, wily impenetrably-accented and foreign-seeming guy next door was no less wrinkly, wily, accented, or foreign-seeming than my Russian-Jewish grandparents. Grandparents, I concluded, came from "The Old Country", which is an incomprehensible blob.

So I wandered around Rome and Naples with an essentially Sicilian-American point of view. And whenever Sicily came under discussion, the local I was talking to would confide about how alien Sicily felt. I was warned not to expect to navigate that culture easily. “They have a whole other language!” exclaimed my Roman airbnb hostess. When I replied that I only learned that “pasta fazool” is actually “pasta fagioli” after I'd reached my late 20s, she gawked at me like I’d been body-snatched.

Next installment of my Italy trip: Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!


Display Name said...

What a delightful read. I have my own pasta fagioli story. My parents owned a bar with their business partner and ran a daily soup special. Some dude asked what the soup was and when my dad replied pasta fagioli the guy got really mad because he thought he was being cursed at.

Jim Leff said...

I once used a Sanskrit term in a yoga class and the teacher said “we’ll have none of that language in here”. I guffawed, assuming she was being witty, but she was stone-faced. Also, she ended every class with a sanctimonious “namaste”.

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