“Everyone, in the morning when we have coffee, we have an arancina because it gives us the boost to start the day!” says Sicilian chef Enzo Oliveri.
If you are used to thinking of the big, round balls of rice with their crunchy golden breadcrumb crust and hidden heart of ragu, peas and cheese (or one of the many other variations) as lunch or dinner, Sicily’s affection for arancini as an essential start to the day may come as a surprise. But Sicily not only loves arancini for breakfast - come December 13 some parts of Sicily devote an entire day to the classic rice ball.
Arancini are of course a favourite in many parts of Italy for lunch or dinner. But breakfast?
“It’s the most popular breakfast in Sicily,” Oliveri says in Sicily with Aldo and Enzo, a series that sees the Sicilian-born chef show another Italian chef, Aldo Zilli, around the southern Italian island. And his enthusiasm for a warm ball of rice in the morning is enough to make anyone wish they could pop into a Sicilian bar and grab an espresso and an arancina on the way to work.
“We don't think it's a lunch, we don't think it's a dinner, it's just in the morning, and nice and hot! We have it to have a boost up to start working … it keeps us going from the morning until the lunchtime,” Oliveri says when SBS Food chats to the globe-trotting chef. Now based in London, he returns regularly to Sicily, and when we talk to him, he is also looking forward to a trip to India in January to serve as a judge at the Young Chef Olympiad.
Arancini bring back fond memories of a different kind of breakfast for another Sicilian chef, Sydney-based Lina Sauro. Sauro, the chef behind Sydney’s Olio Kensington Street and Gattopardo in Singapore, says his favourite kind of arancini is filled with peas and ham. “I love the classic with green peas, mozzarella and cooked ham, it reminds me of every Sunday after church, back when I was a teenager… it was after church in the plaza of my hometown - an amazingly cute village of five thousand people called Gangi! It was kind of a reward after fasting the whole morning and also because normally lunch on Sunday is consumed quite late - early afternoon.”
Lauro is a fan of arancini any time of day. “Definitely it is a good breakfast. But being a very popular Sicilian street food I can say it can be consumed every moment of the day,” he says. It’s also one of the best-sellers on the menu at Olio - currently with a wagyu beef filling.
Rosa Mitchell, of Melbourne’s enduringly popular Rosa’s Canteen, has many fond memories of learning to make arancini. “My mum was the arancini queen. I’m not sure how young I was [when I started learning] but it was part of our ritual,” says the Sicilian-born cook and author, who came to Australia with her family at the age of seven.
“She had big hands [so] when we'd make arancini, we could tell which ones were hers!”
So what are the keys to making great arancini?
The three chefs agree it’s about good ingredients and a tight rice ball (so it doesn’t explode when frying!)
“There is the techniques, but the ingredient, that basically is very, very important. The better quality the food, the better the result,” says Oliveri.
“The classic is [filled with] the ragu and the peas, but then we have a variety with the ham and cheese. We have a variety with the chicken. We have a variety with the pistachio. Nowadays you can do the arancini even with chocolate. There's so many different varieties nowadays, but the classic arancina is the main one, with ragu and peas. That's number one, then number two is ham and cheese. When we do them, we shape in a different way, so we can recognise which is which,” he says, explaining why you might spot both balls and a shape that’s like a round-bottomed cone.
These days, you can buy moulds to help create perfectly round or pointy arancini, but Mitchell has a great tip for new arancini-makers.
“It can be really hard, especially if you're starting to make them, to get the shaping and to make them stick and stay in a round ball. I used to sometimes use a glass; I'd put Glad wrap in the bottom of the glass and put the rice and the filling in, then use the Glad wrap to help mould it. That's a great way to get a nice uniform size.”
And while the size is up to you, traditional arancini are big.
“They're the size of an orange because that's what arancini means, and they're lovely and big and you have the beautiful filling inside. People now call the little risotto balls that are just rice and a little something, arancini, but they're not. They’re risotto balls or they're suppli,” Mitchell explains.
Some parts of making arancini you just have to learn by doing. “The cooked rice texture - quite overcooked and very rich in butter and cheese and not too wet/soft - is very important,” says Sauro. “And not less important is the crust, not too thick, not too thin!”
Most crucial of all, perhaps, is avoiding the mess of arancini that fall apart when fried!
Oliveri has a technique for that: he mixes water and a little in a bowl and then dips the formed arancini in, before coating them in breadcrumbs (you can watch him make arancini for Aldo Zilli in episode 5 of Sicily with Aldo and Enzo).
Another option, as suggested by Paola Baccia in her recipe for arancini con pomodoro e piselli, is to add an egg to the rice if you are having problems getting the mixture to hold together around the filling.
And if you’re looking for the perfect day to give making arancini a go, look no further than December 13.
“There is one particular day, the thirteenth of December, which is Saint Lucia day, that everyone eats arancina,” Oliveri tells us. "It's not a pasta day, it's an arancina day, so every single person is very full of arancina!”
Watch double episodes of Sicily with Aldo and Enzo Saturdays 6.30pm from 7 December to 8 February on SBS Food (Channel 33). Episodes will then be available on SBS On Demand after they air.
Traditionally, the sauce would be a meat ragù with peas, but a quicker and equally tasty way is to make a sauce with good-quality pork sausage and peas or to make a thick pea and tomato sauce for a vegetarian version.
Like arancini? It will be love at first bite with these cheesy, meaty, rice-filled suppli.
Arancini are said to have originated in Sicily and are traditionally filled with a meat ragù, tomato and mozzarella. A tasty little snack, this version does away with the meat and instead uses saffron, another excellent ingredient of southern Italy.
This is Josie and Salvatore Politini's recipe for arancini, which they serve at their salami-making workshops.