Sicilian Rice Balls


Sicilian Rice Balls, or Arancini, are typically deep-fried rice balls (or risotto) stuffed with mozzarella cheese, peas, and a scrumptious meat or bolognese sauce. As with favorite foods from different regions around the world, this Italian favorite can be prepared in a variety of ways. As kids we enjoyed picking them up like baseballs and just digging right in! We may have dropped a few peas on the floor, but my crazy Sicilian aunts cared more about us enjoying the food then using proper table manners! I wish I could say the same, but sadly I’m a little more uptight than that. Anyway, while some like to eat them by hand, with no sauce, others like them served on a plate with a lot of sauce and cheese. They are a fantastic dish for celebrations because they look so inviting when all lined up, looking all golden brown and warm.

This dish is one of many that bring back feelings of total warmth from childhood. My parents would pack up my three brothers and me and head to my grandma’s house on most Sundays. I knew back then it was a good thing, smelling and eating all that great home-cooked Italian food, with lots of wonderful and loving aunts and uncles. But today I understand that it was way better than a good thing – it was an awesome thing. The simple hugs, laughter and good food layed that foundation of who I was to become, and what things are most important in life. Every now and then, a simple taste of food reminds me of those joyful feelings, and of course, one of those dishes was my Auntie Connie’s Rice Balls. This dish wasn’t any ordinary dish, consisting of a list of ingredients, it was more like Auntie’s Connie’s love rolled up in a ball, given to us to not only fill our tummies, but to also fill our souls.

Here’s the “recipe.”

Sicilian Rice Balls
  • 2 cups uncooked sticky rice, cooked according to package instructions (Japanese rice works, but Arborio rice is widely used for this dish)
  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 2 cups bread crumbs
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 6-8 cloves of fresh garlic, minced, grated or finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • ½ bell pepper chopped
  • ½ cup grated Pecorino Romano grated cheese
  • ½ cu[ shredded Reggiano Parmiagiano
  • a little kosher salt and black pepper
  • dried basil, oregano and parsley
  • a few tablespoons olive oil
  • several cups vegetable oil for frying the rice balls (deep-frying, so you need plenty)
  • about 6 cups tomato sauce - make your favorite italian sauce, or you can use the recipe for my Marinara Sauce.
  1. Notes: You will need to roll the rice balls when the rice is freshly cooked and hot, so make sure not to make it to far in advance. Also, you will need to wear clean, plastic gloves - so make sure you have those on hand.
  2. Make sure your sauce is prepared before you start the rice ball process.
  3. Heat a couple tbls of olive oil in medium to large fry pan and saute onions and green peppers for about five minutes.
  4. Add the garlic and saute for an additional 30 seconds or so (don't let it brown).
  5. Now add the ground beef and while it's browning, add some oregano, dried basil, dried and fresh parsley, salt and pepper to taste (takes several minutes). Reserve some of the fresh parley for topping the finished dish.
  6. After the ground beef is cooked, you can stir in the peas.
  7. Set aside
  8. Cook the rice. Note: add salt to the water before cooking the rice - and let the rice sit for about five minutes after it's done steaming.
  9. While the rice is cooking, you should start heating your oil to deep fry rice balls. It's probably best to use a deep fryer, but I used a medium pot.
  10. In a large mixing bowl, add the rice and stir in about a cup of the sauce. You want the rice to pick up some of the color of the sauce, but don't add too much because your rice balls won't hold a shape. The color should be deeper than a pink and should have the flavor of the sauce.
  11. Add the ground beef mixture to the rice and sauce blend, enough so that you'd get a couple pieces of ground beef with every spoonful. The ratio should be that there's more rice than beef and peas.
  12. To the rice mixture, add a lot of grated cheese - enough that when you take a bite, you can definitely taste the cheese.
  13. In a shallow bowl, spread the bread crumbs.
  14. Now you're ready to roll (get it???) Note - before you start this, make sure the oil is ready.
  15. While the rice and beef mixture is still on the hot side, and with gloves on, pick up a handful of the hot rice mixture and form a small ball, about the size of a tennis ball.
  16. Roll the ball in the breadcrumbs so that the entire ball is covered evenly.
  17. Once you have rolled three or four, add them to your fryer, being very gentle.
  18. I simply use a slotted metal spoon a gently lower them in the oil one at a time, but I'm sure a fryer is much easier and safer.
  19. After about four minutes, the balls should be a nice golden brown - you may need to gently turn them to make sure they brown evenly. Remove them and place on paper towel to drain.
  20. Repeat this until all are cooked.
  21. Heat your sauce and add some to a nice shallow serving dish. Place the rice balls on the sauce, drizzle more sauce on the top of the rice balls and top with shredded parmigiano cheese and some fresh parley.
  22. Serving suggestion: This dish is very filling even though it can be served as an appetizer. It's wonderful with some crusty bread, and can be a side dish to any main course. I like them just as they are, and can't wait to share them at my family's next cook-off.

Marinara Sauce

I think I’ve made Marinara Sauce hundreds of times for so many different occasions, and it never fails that people want the recipe. Funny thing is, I don’t have a recipe. Growing up around Sicilian women in the kitchen, each with their special slant on different sauces and dishes, somehow made it’s way into my blood. But you didn’t have to grow up that way to make a fantastic, quick and fresh sauce that will have people falling in love with your food — and maybe you, too! I’m not kidding, this will only take you about 20 minutes.

Garlic Girl’s Marinara Sauce

a couple tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cans imported (from Italy) whole, peeled tomatoes
about 12 cloves garlic chopped finely or crushed
1 medium onion
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1/4 fresh basil – you can substitute dry for herbs (but then use much less)
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 teaspoon sugar
kosher salt and ground fresh black pepper


Cover bottom of large fry pan with olive oil. On medium heat, saute the onions for a few minutes until a little translucent. Sprinkle some of the basil and parsley on top of the onions.

Important step: drizzel some of the sauce (about 1/8 cup) from the can of the whole tomatoes into the pan – you’ll hear a nice sizzle and all the aromas will start kicking up. THEN add the garlic. I do this because I don’t like when the garlic overcooks. Pouring in a little of the sauce (not the tomatoes) also helps marry all the flavors of the herbs together before you add the whole tomatoes.

After about a minute or two, add the wine — then the tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar, and the rest of the herbs. Let everything simmer for about 10 minutes before you start crushing the tomatoes in the pan.

Get a wooden spoon and taste it. If it tastes too tangy, add a bit more sugar. And just season to your taste. I love it tangy, so I always go a bit heavier on the salt, and less sugar.

After simmering another 10 minutes, you are done!

Serving Suggestion
Toss with any kind of pasta. This is a light, impressive sauce that has so much flavor that you don’t need a lot. I always toss the sauce throughout the pasta, and then put the sauce in a serving bowl so that folks who like more sauce can add it. I just made this yesterday and included a photo of the pasta (and the sauce above). I tossed it with the sauce, and then spooned some sauce on the top, sprinkled with Pecorino Romano cheese and fresh parley. Yum!

This, served with a summer salad – butter lettuce, tomato and cucumbers – tossed with lemon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper is a winner. And always, a little fresh bread on the side, too!