Alessandro Pace had just turned 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, a city with a handsome baroque heart in southern Sicily. Bar Corallo, in typical Sicilian style, 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. There was paternal strategy, too. Alessandro’s father was a clerk, so he could keep an eye and ear on his son as he ferried trays of cups and saucers back and forth along the marble-tiled corridors, and see if his plan would work. It did. In three months, the 11-year-old had collected more than enough tips to buy himself 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 sun-soaked 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’s 23 years of serving these streets started with coffee and luminous aperitivi, then patisserie. Now he serves beautiful arancine, the finest cannoli, and something he calls porchetta dolce that is so luscious I need to write about it another day.
“Rice with a soul” is how Alessandro describes arancine. The Arabs first brought rice to Sicily and arancine were created out of necessity – a way of transporting meat for working lunches by giving it a robust rice coat, which in turn made for true sustenance – this was no time or place for bite-sized. Early arancine were simply meat and herbs, evolving with the arrival of tomatoes and the habits of making ragù and panatura – coating with breadcrumbs. In Palermo, they adopted the feminine form of the name, arancina;and, as the name suggests, they are the size of a small, heavy orange. In Catania, and eastern Sicily they use the masculine, arancino, and the rice is shaped like a cone. Other towns are gender-flexible. In Gela, you can find both balls and cones, arancina and arancino. Alessandro prefers the feminine, but has 16 different shapes for his 16 fillings. The first choice for many is arancina al ragù – a cone of saffron-scented rice filled slow-cooked ragù with peas … a joyful sight.
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 making it feel like another small piazza. The newest space is an arancine lab into which I am invited. At the centre of the room is a large table for shaping. On one side, shelves run the length of the room. They are stocked with Sicilian riches: rice, local flours, crates of aubergines, tomatoes, wild greens, onions, jars of deep-red tomato concentrate, wisps of saffron, almonds and purple pistachios flashing emerald-green insides. The room smells of saffron and a rich meat ragù. 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 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’s arancine al ragù
The arborio rice adds creaminess, the canaroli more distinct texture. You could use one variety. The recipe can be halved, but as it is so much work, make lots and freeze. Serve with beer.
Makes about 15
For the broth
6 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2 sticks of celery roughly chopped
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
600g beef in large chunks
4 litres water
For the ragù
200g mixture of chopped onion, celery, carrot, parsley and basil (plus any herbs of your choice)
6 tbsp olive oil, for frying
500g minced veal or beef
A glass of red wine
Salt and pepper, to taste
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 (5- or 6-litre capacity) pan. Warm the oil, then 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 ragu. Fry the chopped vegetables and herbs gently until soft and translucent. Add the meat and fry until browned. Add the wine, increase the heat. When bubbling, add the passata, salt and pepper. Turn the heat down, then simmer for at least 1 hour. Add the peas in the last 30 minutes. Once the mixture is thick and rich, pull it 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 and 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. Meanwhile, have ready your pan of ragu, and a large tablespoon or serving spoon to measure out 50g or so of the mixture.
4 Take a big handful of rice (more or less 180g) then shape into an elongated ball. Use your finger to make a thumb-width indent, and fill will ragu. 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, depending on size of the arancine, or until deep golden brown, then serve.