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
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 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.