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Food Porn: little orange balls

Kimchi arancini

Kimchi and rice-filled arancini with spicy Korean dipping sauce.

I remember in vivid detail my first encounter with arancini.

It was in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, a historically Italian neighborhood and longtime home of famous mafioso John Gotti. I'd made my way to an old-school joint called Ferdinando's, which dates back to 1904, because it was one of the only places I could find that offered seriously traditional Sicilian fare.

At the time, I was mainly intigued by the vastedda, a sandwich of creamy ricotta and veal spleen served hot on freshly baked focaccia. That's right, spleen. It's a common specialty of Palermo, where you'll find vendors selling hot vastedde on the streets to hungry Sicilians. As far as organ meats go, I found it quite tasty, with a uniquely spongy consistency and an iron-rich flavor that belied the fact that, while this was far from bad, it was also far from steak. A classic vastedda looks like this:

"More spleen, sir?"

"More spleen, sir?"

 

But seeing as I was already in a renowned spot for southern Italian fare, I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to try out some other intriguing menu items. There was pasta marinara, naturally, and scungilli, but I'll never forget when the server brought out a plate upon which was a fist-sized, glowing amber sphere of something immediately recognized by my New Orleans lizard brain as having been lovingly deep fried. "This," our server informed me, "is the arancini."

Well, technically, it was an "arancino," in the singular (after four years of college Italian, at least I remember my plurals). And also, technically, I was in love. Head over heels, as a matter of fact, and at first sight. This thing, this marvelous thing, was going to be a part of my life, for the rest of my life. I knew it then and there, the way you know that water is wet or ice is cold. This is what philosophers refer to as "a priori knowledge." It is. And that is that.

For the unfamiliar, the word arancini comes from the Italian arancia, which means "orange." In its diminutive plural, arancini means "little oranges." And that's generally what you get when you order them: A filling -- generally rice, often with meat, cheese and/or sauce -- dredged in bread crumbs and fried until golden, ultimately resulting in cute, savory little orange balls. The size ranges, depending on who's making them. Sometimes they're big enough to hold in two hands, and in other cases the size of a golf ball, in which you'll get a nifty pile of the gorgeous little guys, usually with red "gravy" or similar sauce or sauces for dipping.

There are so many things I adore about arancini. First, more often than not they're finger food, which is great, because I love to eat with my hands. I adore any opportunity to eschew forks and spoons (and sporks) in favor of employing the eating utensils gifted to me at birth. This partly explains my fondness for Indian and Ethiopian cuisines, as well as sushi and tacos. Using your hands gives you a wonderful extra tactile way to sense and explore your food. When it comes to arancini, you can immediately feel the texture of the crusty, fried exterior, see if it's too greasy or too dry and crumbly, and really get an idea about these little orange balls before they even get near your mouth.

Then there's the sauce-dunking, of course, another food facet for which I've long had an affection. We learn the love of dipping early in life, usually with french fries and ketchup. By the time we're all grown up epicures, we've moved onto garlic basil aioli, mint chili chutneys and four hundred different kinds of gourmet mustard, but the simple, tactile pleasure of "the dip" never diminishes. Even into our old age, god willing, it will always be a childlike joy.

Another wonderful reason to love arancini is the fact that they're amazingly versatile. Only three requirements need be met for a foodstuff to be rightfully considered arancini: the filling must contain rice, they must be spherical in shape (unless you're making the conical versions common to Eastern Sicily), and they must be fried. You can fudge on that last one by baking your arancini, but they're not going to be the same. Baked arancini make me sad. But what doesn't make me sad are the various ways chefs have gotten inventive with their little oranges.

I've had fillings ranging from kimchi paired with a spicy Korean sauce to fried red beans and rice with green onion aioli and reduced hot sauce at Capdeville, the rotating cast of internationally-flavored arancini coated in Panko at Wayfare, and of course traditional Sicilian arancini at places like Amici, which fills their generously sized offerings with mozzarella, meatballs and peas. One intrepid Internet chef made "jambacini" by, you guessed it, deep frying balls of jambalaya. That's just genius, right there.

I also can't leave out the fact that arancini are deep fried, which makes pretty much any food alluring. You could probably deep fry a couple of Converse Chuck Taylors, and so long as they had that perfect golden crust on the outside, I'd likely eat them. I'm a sucker like that.

Finally, I love arancini because they're enjoyed in the cities of Palermo and Trapani in Sicily on December 13 during the Feast of Santa Lucia. That day, as fate has it, is also my birthday. Since bread and pasta aren't eaten during the feast -- owing to the commemoration of the arrival of a grain supply ship on Santa Lucia's day in 1646, which ended a serious famine -- arancini are all the rage, as beloved and traditional as king cake on Mardi Gras. Hence, whenever I eat arancini, it's like I'm having a little birthday party in my mouth.

That, if anything, is reason enough to love these lovely little oranges.


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.