Eating the Past: Arancini and suppli
This is Laura Gelfand, and today I’ll be continuing our explorations in the wide world of dumplings with two Italian
variations on the theme: arancini and suppli.
While you may not find them very often in the US, these rice-based, fried dumpling snacks are ubiquitous in Sicily
and in and around Rome, where the golden globes glisten enticingly in the windows of shops called friggitoria that
sell fried foods. They are also commonly found on menus in most trattorias and pizzerias.
So what are they? Arancini are made of prepared arborio rice—the kind used for risotto—wrapped around a filling,
dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, and fried a golden brown. Arancini are typically filled with a meat-based tomato stew
called a ragu, but they can also be stuffed with cheese, peas, mushrooms, pistaccios, or eggplant.
Their name, arancini is derived from their shape and color, which resembles an orange, or ananci in the Sicilian dialect.
Like the scotch eggs that Tammy Proctor discussed on this show a couple weeks ago, arancini are a convenient way to
pack a complete meal for travel, and that has surely contributed to their lasting appeal.
Arancini are first found in Sicily in the 10th century when the island was under Arab rule, so they are probably related to
kibbeh, from the Levant. While they are now available year around, it is traditional in Palermo, Siracusa, and Trapani to eat
them on December 13, which is the feast of Santa Lucia.
Serving arancini on the Saint’s Feast Day commemorates the 1646 arrival of a supply ship filled with grain, which saved
many people from a dire famine. One quick aside, Santa Lucia (or Saint Lucy) is an early fourth century virgin martyr saint
Art history students love her because she is particularly easy to recognize in works of art from the fifteenth century on
thanks to her striking attribute: two eyes on a plate. There are several origin stories for this iconography, but my favorite is
that Lucy, who had consecrated her virginity to God, had a persistent suitor who admired her eyes so she gouged them
out. When her body was prepared for burial it was discovered that her eyes had been restored. This is why she became the
patron saint of eye diseases.
But back to dumplings! Ok, so in Sicily we have arancini, they can be round, or sometimes conical, a shape inspired by the
local volcano, Mt. Etna. Rome has its own variation on these fried rice balls which are called suppli. This Roman appetizer is
usually filled with mozzarella, or some other cheese, and they are typically served with a tomato sauce. You might think of it
as a bit like fried, cheesy breadsticks, but way, way better.
The name suppli first appears in the 19th century and has a charming French origin; it is derived from the French term for
surprise, “en surprise,” in Italian, suppli. You eat them with your hands and when you pull the two halves apart, the melted
cheese stretches, giving them yet another wonderful name, suppli al telefono, or “telephone style suppli,” in reference to
old-fashioned telephones with cords that attach the handset to the base.
No matter which version you try, these Italian dumplings are absolutely delicious.
Next week more on the history of dumplings. Join us for Eating the Past every Sunday at noon, right before The Splendid
Table, on your UPR station.