When thinking about Sicily, drop the Mafia and take the arancini instead: these golden orbs of deep fried rice exemplify Sicilian street food. But that hasn’t stopped Sicilians from debating the tradition’s history, name and recipe. Some scholars trace their origins to St. Lucy’s day, celebrated on December 13th, when citizens ate rice to commemorate a grain shipment that ended a 1646 famine. Others assert that the frequent use of saffron hint to Saracen origins. 

Intrigued by their lore and cult following, I followed my stomach to Sicily where I toured the arancini trail on the quest for the best arancini of Sicily. Here are five ways to enjoy this local delicacy, conveniently connected with exploring five very different areas with all their traditions.

Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you!

photo by Steven Depolo via flickr

1) Arancini al ragù on the boat

Everyone eats an arancino on the boat from the mainland to Sicily. I was on the ferry that transports the overnight train from Milan to the island in absence of a bridge or tunnel. Despite the vivid blue waters and crystal-clear view of Sicily’s mountainous coast, grumbling stomachs guide passengers to the grubby indoor cafe where burly waiters bounce to tinny Italo-pop and serve up arancini. They zap your conical lump in the microwave, then wrap it in paper and toss it over. 

Translated literally ‘arancino’ means little orange tree, but you receive a breaded and deep-fried pyramid of rice stuffed with meat sauce and peas — a traditional arancino al ragù. It’s so large you must grip it with both hands. The uninitiated attack it top down. That’s what I did. Between bites of crunchy-but-overcooked rice I detected rubbery meat, salty tomatoes and squishy peas. If this is a Sicilian arancino, I’m worried.

Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you!

2) Arancini al pistacchio in Syracuse

After getting off the boat, my first stop is Syracuse, a regal seaside town on the South East coast where pastel-colored Baroque buildings mingle with Greek ruins and arancini beckon to hungry passer-bys from every bar. On an island where the food’s constant presence connects cafes, condemning the fried food amounts to blasphemy. If you don’t like the traditional ragù filled variety, I was told, try a sweet one filled with Nutella. Although I was sceptical, historians would mention that such varieties resemble arancini’s possible ancestors. To celebrate St. Lucy’s day, the Siracusani mixed boiled wheat berries with ricotta and honey. Someone decided this would taste better fried and so arancini were born. 

Eager to test the theory, I slid over the sleek paving stones of Ortigia, the historic center, to Bar Midolo, a snappy pastry shop off the tourist trail. I pointed to the arancino al pistacchio, pistachio arancini. As I bit into the tennis-ball shaped croquette, sweet pistachio cream ran down my chin like melting ice cream. With sugar pulsing through me, I admired the sailboats gliding through Syracuse’s sparse harbour, wondering why residents sought intense sweets when each corner of their city satisfied with painted tiles, ancient ruins and lush window gardens. 

Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you!

3) Arancini al burro in Palermo

I would discover the answer in Palermo, where the views aren’t so picturesque. Crumbling buildings shade the streets while a chorus of cars, mopeds and impromptu soccer games animate the old alleyways. Some historians trace the arancino’s origins not to Syracuse, but to chefs in the King of Sicily’s (and later Holy Roman Emperor), Frederick II’s court. These cooks fried pre-cooked rice for a portable meal to fuel hunting expeditions. Eventually the tradition entered the scrappy streets of Palermo’s Vucciria neighbourhood, where lower classes revitalized old rice with scraps of meat sauce. Vucciria’s tangle of alleyways continue to provide clued-in residents and disoriented travellers with street food at restaurants like Nni Franco u’ Vastiddaru. 

A row of potted palm trees shields diners chomping down on mixed fried foods, pezzi di rosticceria, from the chaos of traffic-choked Via Dante. Nestled in a plastic lawn chair, I cracked the golden exterior of a triangular arancino with a tiny plastic fork and besciamella (white sauce) and prosciutto cotto oozed out. I took one bite, then four, and began to believe the arancini myth.

Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you! Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you!

photo by Glen MacLarty via flickr

4) Arancine alla catanese in Catania

Travel two hours east to Catania and circular arancini become pear-shaped arancine. Under the shadow of Mount Etna, housed in ornate Baroque palaces, people use the feminine rather than masculine. If you ask, they’ll insist arancine is more faithful to standard Italian translation ‘little orange’ (arancia means orange, the diminutive suffix –ina, little). While Accademia della Crusca — arbiters of Italian language — favors the Palermitan spelling, I suspected the differences between the cities’ respective versions were more complex. After a tortuous bus journey through the mountainous interior, I prepared my stomach for arancine with a stroll around the dusty-but-regal side streets where blinds remained shut to guard against Catania’s infamously steamy sun. 

Although the streets were empty, Pasticceria Savia — which has served up arancine since 1897 — was heaving with Catanians relishing in their afternoon pausa caffè. This time I held the conical arancina alla catenese from the point to better taste the delicately sweet eggplant filling through sticky layers of butter-rich rice. It was sweet without being cloying, savoury without ruining dinner. My stomach was happy as my trip ended.

Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you!

5) Arancini in New York

Back in New York, I wondered how Americans interpreted my new favorite fried food. While Italian-American delis have long served a leaden version like the one I ate on the boat, companies such as Arancini Bros. seek to serve Savia-worthy ones. The company pops up at food markets around New York and I found the stall at Madison Square Eats, the food festival that operates under the shadow of New York’s Flatiron building during May and September. Although the flavors rotate daily, they always serve the classic ragù filled ball. Unlike their Sicilian and American cousins, these are roughly the size of a golf ball. I ordered a trio: ragù, spinach-ricotta and eggplant. The warm, salty fillings dominated the squishy rice. After downing the classic in two bites, I gobbled the rich spinach one and happily devoured the spicy eggplant. Arancini, I understood, are compelling because of their diversity. Like Sicily.

Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you!

photo by Jun Seita via flickr

Although arancini now define Sicilian street food, searching for excellence in a single specimen leads to disappointment. More than rich fillings or a golden crust, the combination of stories, techniques and flavors make arancini emblematic of the Island. 

From the blinding sun bouncing off the azure waters on the Straight of Messina and the sailboats wafting through Syracuse’s harbor to Palermo’s orchestrated chaos and Catania’s beguiling Baroque atmosphere, when I think of arancini I think of how Sicilians have adapted a simple culinary technique according to the distinct needs of their island and their cities. And that is why I’m obsessed with arancini.

This is a guest post by Emilia Morano-Williams.

Do you love Italian food? Then this journey through Sicily on the quest for the best Arancini is for you! Emilia gave up the hustle of her native New York to pursue a Masters degree in European Studies at University College London, where she is currently researching the representation of the Italian Mediterranean Diet in the 1980s. She’s traveled extensively in Italy, where she studied for a year at the University of Pavia. Always eager to try local foods, she prefers her arancini fresh and her pasta al dente.