When I think of my grandmother, I think of arancini.
It’s an odd association, since she never once stuffed and fried a ball of leftover risotto in her life. It hardly matters, since I don’t think about her making them.
Instead, I think about her being one of them.
There is a particular story that everyone in my family remembers in great detail about my grandmother. The primary reason for this vivid recollection is that it is packed with drama, violence, and excellent set design. As I boy, I enjoyed the tale because, in it, Grandmom did her own stunts. As a grown up, I now love it because it explains her nature better than any other story could. And because she did her own stunts.
I fondly refer to this tale as The Affair of The Handbag.
This isn’t your typical, heart-warming, food-related Granny story. The lady may have been a phenomenal cook, but she wasn’t the type of woman about whom most food writers like to reminisce.
She never thought to teach me how to make her famous meatballs. There were no moments of deep, generational connection over a pot of simmering minestrone. She was more the type to roll her eyes at me as I shrieked at the sight of her bludgeoning an octopus in the sink.
My grandmother was a tough broad with excellent posture and a mind of her own. She held her nose high when she wasn’t busy sharpening it against the grindstone of hard work; her home and her person were as immaculate as the Holy Conception in which she believed; and she knew the value of a hard-earned dollar, several of which she wisely invested.
As a girl, she abandoned her legal first name and demanded that everyone refer to her as “Rita.” As a woman, she hopped a train bound for California with her son and left her husband, her family, and Philadelphia behind. Within a year, the entire family moved to be with her. On her turf. My grandfather came, too, but on her terms.
She frowned upon extravagant outward displays of wealth. Money, she believed, was to be invested and not flaunted. She wasn’t what I would ever consider miserly– especially where her loved ones were concerned– but she was never lavish. It was entirely against her nature to shower her grandchildren with toys and candy on Christmas. She gave us U.S. Savings Bonds instead. She preferred to invest in our futures rather than our entertainment.
She was insufferably practical and marvelously intimidating.
And only a stranger or a fool would try to separate her from her money. Which is precisely what someone attempted to do in Palermo.
Because Rita did not enjoy the idea of being told where to go and when to go there, my grandparents ditched the end of their air-conditioned bus tour of Europe and hopped a plane for Sicily which, as the homeland of her parents, was where she had wanted to go in the first place.
One afternoon in Palermo, they found themselves wandering a quiet residential street during the riposo. My grandmother likely enjoyed the lack of noise, but was disappointed by the drabness and decay of the houses. The streets were tidy, but the stucco on the houses peeled and cracked. No color. This was not how she imagined Sicily to be.
She didn’t have long to process her disappointment. The annoying buzz of a motor scooter approaching from behind broke her concentration. It was a Vespa Lambretta– a mode of transportation that might be charming when used by likes of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, but upsetting when the rider is a purse snatcher with no obvious Hollywood connections.
The thief may have viewed my grandmother as an ideal target– a sixty-something American tourist, which in thieving circles means: lots of cash, not much resistance. He did exactly what you might have expected him to do: he rode up behind her and grabbed her handbag. Unfortunately for him, my grandmother refused to play the role of the victim.
She held on to her purse.
Leaving my grandfather behind once again thanks to an abrupt choice of transportation, she decided she would rather be dragged to death than let that dirty son-of-a-bitch scippatore win. Her new and utterly confused chauffeur traveled with her for a block before he gave up. Though her nylons may have lost the battle, Rita won the war. It was the shortest excursion of her holiday, but it left the deepest impression.
As convenience would have it, my grandmother was deposited directly in front of the home of a luncheoning doctor. He ran to his window to find a woman of extreme middle age lying in the street below him: smudged, bloodied, and white-knuckling a handbag. (To this day, my cousin Ann Marie still marvels at the quality of that purse’s stitching). He helped her to her feet and brought her inside where he could examine her more closely.
Upon entering the doctor’s house, my grandmother fell into a state of severe shock. Though her injuries were fortunately minor, it was the interior of this kind stranger’s house which caused her convulsions.
She could not get over how beautiful everything in his home was. She was overwhelmed by the fact that a house, whose façade was so dull and cracked and unassuming, could hide such inner richness.
As a headstrong woman with the apparent upper body strength to match, she recounted the story as though it were a foregone conclusion that she should be victorious over the purse snatcher. She was always more interested in telling us of the fine paintings, the sparkling crystal of the chandeliers, and gorgeous detail of the fabrics and draperies she found inside the doctor’s house. She sounded like a female Ali Baba stumbling into the cave of the forty thieves rather than into the home of a good Samaritan.
When she talked of the doctor’s furnishings, however, she wasn’t bowled over by his wealth. Instead, I sometimes came away with the impression that she was moved by something else. Something deeper: the idea that something plain and sturdy and old could hold within its walls a beauty and a hidden treasure that only those who are allowed inside can see.
When she told that story, I don’t think she saw herself as the victor over the thief. I think instead she saw herself as the doctor’s house.
At least, that’s the way I see her now. A crusty old woman with a no-nonsense façade, but with a warm, rich heart shown only to those lucky enough to be allowed in to see.
Or, in culinary terms, like an arancino.
An important thing to remember about arancini is that it means “little oranges” in Italian. I’ve heard one man on television tell his viewers that he likes to make them pear-shaped, which would necessarily make them “piccole pere.” He clearly has no respect for the Italian language.
I doubt very much my grandmother ever gave the matter much thought. It may have never occurred to her to make risotto in the first place, since it’s a Northern Italian thing. However, one of the most delightful notions about arancini is that the Sicilians have taken a food staple of the North and made it something very much their own.
It’s almost as if they’re saying, “Eat me, Po Valley” every time they make it– a culinary thumbing of the nose. Or, if you want to be more authentically Italian, this gesture.
Makes about 10 little oranges.
You can stuff your arancini with whatever suits your fancy. The following recipe, though bloody good is merely one example. Just be certain to make the flavors bold. There is no room for subtlety in these little fried balls.
• About 550 grams (20 ounces) of basic risotto, refrigerated. About 5-ish cups of the stuff. I am not teaching you how to make risotto today. If you’d like to know how try this place or this one, but for god’s sake not this one. Just make a lot, so you can have enough left over to make this recipe.
• Approximately 150 grams of pancetta (2 1/2 inch-think slices) finely chopped
• 1 1/2 cups of grated smoked fontina cheese (I did not measure this in grams, but it’s honestly not important.)
• 1 tablespoon of finely chopped parsley. I used Italian for obvious reasons.
• 3 whole eggs
• Plenty of Panko bread crumbs. About 2 cups. Regular breadcrumbs are more authentic, but I am not authentically Sicilian and therefore do not care.
• A good amount of all-purpose flour, for coating and dredging. I wouldn’t dream of measuring this and neither should you.
• 1 quart of vegetable oil for frying
• As much salt and pepper as you are willing to invest.
1. To make the filling, dice up the pancetta* and cook gently over a low-to-medium heat until it releases a good amount of grease. Once it is sitting in a puddle of its own hot fat, turn up the heat to medium and cook until browned and fairly crispy. Remove from heat, drain onto a paper towel-lined plate. Once the pancetta has cooled, mix it together with the grated cheese and parsley. Cover and refrigerate overnight or until ready to use.
2. Pour the vegetable oil into your pan to a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep. Warm the oil over low heat on the stove while you’re assembling the arancini. I would strongly suggest you use a frying thermometer to properly gauge the ultimate, desired temperature, which is 350ºF. If you are experienced enough to interpret the subtle changes in hot oil temperatures, you will not need one and you have my full respect.
Pre-heat your oven to 400ºF.
3. Clear a good-sized workspace on your counter. Assemble ingredients to be put into three separate bowls: 1) Two eggs, lightly beaten with about 2 tablespoons of cold water, 2) all-purpose flour generously sprinkled with salt and freshly cracked pepper, and 3) bread crumbs. Remove risotto and arancini filling from the refrigerator.
4. Divide the risotto into equal portions. I prefer to weigh mine for the sake of consistency to 55 grams, which is a substantial weight. If you’re planning to serve your arancini as hors d’oeuvres, you will want to make them smaller. Roll the filling into balls roughly the size of a tablespoon and set aside.
5. Take one of the risotto balls and press a deep hole into the middle of it with your thumb. Inside it, place the ball of filling and gently shape the rice around it until you have a smooth, even sphere. Repeat until all of the risotto balls have been filled.
6. Roll each ball in the bowl of flour, shaking off any excess. Next, dip the floured ball in the egg wash and shake off any of this new-found excess. Finally, roll the floured, egg-washed ball in bread crumbs, gently pressing them into the surface of the sphere, making it as round and lovely as you dare. Repeat until you run out of materials or get utterly bored.
7. Place the balls into your 350ºF frying oil two or three at a time. Do not over crowd the pan. Turn the balls gently as you fry them, making sure they brown evenly. Once they are sufficiently golden in color, remove them from the oil and let them drain on to a paper towel-lined plate. About 2 to 3 minutes per batch.**
8. Place as many arancini as you and/or your guests can eat onto a parchment lined baking sheet and pop into your 400ºF oven for about 10 minutes. You’ll know they are ready to eat when their bottoms begin to bubble, which signals that their insides are now properly molten.
9. Serve hot with either your favorite tomato sauce or a simple wedge of lemon to squeeze over them. If you want to serve them the way my grandmother would, if she had cared to make them, make sure everyone else is fed, apologize for the remote possibility that they might not be your best effort, (outwardly) brush aside any and all assurances to the contrary, and only sit down once everyone at the table has begged you to do so and that the dishes left in the kitchen can wait until after dinner is over.
* I have found it’s best to slice pancetta when it is cold. It’s much more easily done this way and will save you time and emergency room fees.
** At this point, your arancini can be held for a couple of hours at room temperature before serving. However, it will take a little more time in the oven until their bottoms bubble properly.