Shape up

Comiso’s Alessan­dro Pace makes arancini that are fa­mous lo­cally. He has built an ex­per­i­men­tal kitchen in south­ern Si­cily, of­fer­ing myr­iad shapes and flavour com­bi­na­tions – but none are so pop­u­lar as this one, filled with ragù A

The Guardian - Cook - - A Kitchen In Rome - Rachel Roddy

lessan­dro Pace was 11 when he got his first job. His fa­ther, in an at­tempt to keep his way­ward son out of trou­ble, ar­ranged a sum­mer job at a bar in their home­town. Comiso is a city with a hand­some baroque heart in south­ern Si­cily. Bar Co­rallo dis­pensed short espres­sos, ex­trav­a­gantly sweet pas­tries, plump savoury snacks, gelati, granita sor­bets, beers and amaro the colour of trea­cle. Its po­si­tion across the pi­azza from the town hall meant most of the wares that left the bar were des­tined for of­fi­cials and clerks. Since Alessan­dro’s fa­ther was a clerk, he could keep an eye on his son as he fer­ried trays of cups and saucers along the mar­ble-tiled cor­ri­dors. The fa­ther’s plan worked. In three months, Alessan­dro col­lected enough tips to buy a new bike – and dis­cov­ered what he was go­ing to do with his life.

Twenty-three sum­mers later, Alessan­dro and I sit on the same sun­soaked pi­azza, watch­ing kids on bikes and hov­er­boards cir­cling groups of older men in white shirts on benches, who seem to be the eyes of the city. While we talk, sev­eral kids cy­cle past shout­ing “Ciao San­dro” – as does the owner of al­most every car and scooter that passes: the man driv­ing the Ape van full of toma­toes and aubergines and the woman hoist­ing down a bas­ket to col­lect a loaf of bread and a scratch card. He ap­pears to know ev­ery­one.

Alessan­dro now serves beau­ti­ful arancine, which he calls “rice with a soul”. Arancine were in­vented out of ne­ces­sity – a way of trans­port­ing meat for work­ing lunches by giv­ing it a ro­bust rice coat. At first, they were filled sim­ply with meat and herbs; Alessan­dro now has 16 dif­fer­ent shapes for 16 dif­fer­ent fill­ings. The first choice for many is arancina al ragù – a cone of saf­fron-scented rice filled with slow­cooked ragù and peas.

Alessan­dro’s Can­tunera be­gan as a small op­er­a­tion on one cor­ner, or cantu, of a junc­tion near the pi­azza – now it’s dis­persed over three cor­ners of the junc­tion, mak­ing it feel like a small pi­azza. The new space is an arancine lab into which I am in­vited. Watch­ing Alessan­dro work is al­most sooth­ing – the way­ward kid is now a beau­ti­fully steady and pre­cise chef. My first at­tempts do not look like his – more de­formed jelly baby than cone. He as­sures me that I will get bet­ter.

That night, my part­ner’s cousins and friends ar­rive from Gela to see what I’ve been go­ing on about. We push three ta­bles to­gether on the widest part of the pave­ment, then feast on freshly fried arancine – ragù, pis­ta­chio, sword­fish and aubergine; sausage and radic­chio; aubergine and salted ri­cotta – while the noc­turne of the three cor­ners plays out: a fa­ther col­lect­ing his trays of a dozen arancine while his son waits in the car, kids on scoot­ers mount the pave­ment to col­lect theirs, a cou­ple court­ing over cones. San­dro is ever-present, some­times be­hind the counter, some­times serv­ing ta­bles, ac­knowl­edg­ing ev­ery­one, watch­ing as they break rice to­gether.

Alessan­dro serves beau­ti­ful arancine, which he calls ‘rice with a soul’

A glass of red wine 500ml pas­sata

Salt and pep­per, to taste 200g peas

For the rice balls

2 pack­ets (around 0.8g) of saf­fron Salt and black pep­per

500g carnaroli rice

500g ar­bo­rio rice

100g but­ter

100g grated cheese – ca­cio­cav­allo, pecorino or parme­san are ideal Flour and wa­ter paste, or 2 beaten eggs, for dip­ping

2 hand­fuls of fine bread­crumbs Peanut or sun­flower oil, for deep fry­ing

1 Make the broth in a large pan. Fry the onion, cel­ery and car­rot for a few min­utes, then add the meat and brown it all over. Add the wa­ter, then bring to the boil. Skim, then re­duce to a sim­mer for 2 hours, by which time it will have re­duced by al­most half. Strain.

2 Mean­while, make the ragù. Fry the chopped veg­eta­bles and herbs gently un­til soft and translu­cent. Add the meat and fry un­til browned. Add the wine and in­crease the heat. When bub­bling, add the pas­sata, salt and pep­per. Lower the heat, then sim­mer for at least 1 hour. Add the peas in the last 30 min­utes. When thick and rich, pull the ragù from the heat, taste and ad­just sea­son­ing and al­low it to cool.

3 Now, cook the rice. Strain 2 litres of broth, add the saf­fron and bring to the boil. Add the rice. Cook un­til all the stock has been ab­sorbed and the rice is cooked – you want it sticky and al dente, not stodgy. Beat in the but­ter and cheese. Let it rest un­til cool enough to han­dle.

4 Take a big hand­ful of rice (around 180g), then shape into an elon­gated ball. Use your fin­ger to make a thumb­width in­dent, and fill will ragù. Then close by mould­ing the rice around the fill­ing, into a cone shape if you can.

5 Dip each cone into the beaten egg or paste, then into the bread­crumbs. Leave to rest for 30 min­utes.

6 Bring your oil to 180C/350F. Deep fry the arancine for 5–10 min­utes, or un­til deep golden brown, then serve.

Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rache­leats

Cook’s tip Arancine freeze bril­liantly and can be fried from frozen.

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