A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
I'll readily admit that the age-old dispute over the gender of the Italian arancini—when singular, is it arancino or arancina?—while a question that even bothered the famed Accademia della Crusca, elicited from me the same response as a boring documentary: Small buckets of yawns. On one hand, Palermo, the capital city of Sicily on the Italian island's West Coast, claims it should be the feminine arancina, whereas in Catania, on the East Coast of Sicily, claims that the salted street food is characteristic of all Sicily and thereby must go by the masculine arancino.
But boys and girls, with all due respect: Whether you call it arancino or arancina doesn't matter to me at all. What matters is that whatever I'm biting into is artfully executed. In this battle between the East and West Coast (and from here you should continue reading while listening to 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. in order to better immerse yourself in the vibe of the feud), the opposition isn't just gender-based. There are actual differences between arancino and arancina:
- The shape: On the Palermitian West Coast, the arancina in sauce—called accarne—is round, and those that are stuffed with béchamel, prosciutto, or abburro (also called al burro) are pointed. In Catania, meaning the East Coast, these shapes are reversed.
- The color of the rice: In Palermo, the rice is often "dirty" with a bit of saffron, whereas in Catania it's not, even though it's made in testicle-like pairs in both cities.
- The stuffing: The saucy filling in Palermo is made with minced meat and peas, but in Catania it's made with a piece of meat, almost like in a stew. For the latter, the peas are optional.
Now, before telling you how I, on behalf of MUNCHIES, scoured all of Milan in search of the best arancino and arancina, I'd like to compose A Brief Treatise on the Correct Execution of the Arancino/a, because it's important to clarify the grading system beforehand.
- The rice, the great weakness of many arancino and aracina consumed during my long career as a serial binge-eater in Sicily, must be cooked very al dente before it can be fried. Otherwise it runs the risk of becoming gross and mud-like.
- The stuffing must be perfect. It can't be too liquified, because otherwise it could cause the ball to burst while its being fried, so a dry sauce is even better—maybe one that's even been passed through a colander.
- The frying process dictates that the arancino or arancina must be immersed in an abundance of peanut oil, even if the most stubborn cooks claim to use olive instead. Or you could just do whatever you want, too.
- The stuffing method means you make a ball of rice and hollow it out with your thumb, introduce the stuffing, and seal it to close the hollowed ball with some extra rice. It's important to have a bowl of cold water on hand to moisten your fingers in order to keep the grains from sticking to your hands.
- The breading must be similar to the armor of a warrior from the Roman Empire: An impenetrable robe that—at the moment of the fateful tasting—must crunch without shattering. I recommend using a dense paste made from durum wheat flour and cold water (measured "by feeling") and then dredging it in breadcrumbs instead of using the classic egg wash-meets flour-meets crushed breadcrumbs approach. You'll get a coating that will test your incisors.
And I'd like to conclude on a methodological note: You eat the pointed arancino/a by picking it up by the tip of the point, flipping it over, and eating it like a cone. I know very well that most Italians bite into it from the side, but you don't have an excuse now that I've explained the proper way to you.
The Mission: Finding the Best Arancini in Milan
I wrote this lengthy introduction because I hear too often that "it's not possible to eat a high end arancino or arancina outside of Sicily" (in the similar vein of thought as "Only Naples for pizza; only Rome for carbonara"). As someone who lives in Milan—the much-criticized city, victim of the most prejudice in Italy—I asked myself: What if I went looking for the best arancini out there?
I planned a trajectory that started from the southern part of the city and headed north. Together with my dear Alice—the official photographer of my gastronomical adventures (which will send me straight to the cardiovascular wing, one day)—I prepared myself and opened the gates to my welcoming stomach.
Regarding the selection criteria, I only ate ordinary arancino and arancina in meat and sauce. Moreover, I avoided restaurants. I only went to bars and rotisseries, as they do on the island, because let's be real: You don't see arancini in a restaurant in Sicily.
At the heart of Naviglio Pavese, in the Chiesa Rossa district in the very out of the way southern part of Milan, I found Cose Nostre (a questionable name, I know). The owner, who goes by Uncle Totuccio, has lived in Milan for 30 years now, but his strong Palermitian accent hasn't faded in the least despite his long absence from the region. He thought it was important to convey that his shop remains open until 5 AM on Fridays and Saturdays. But I visited during the afternoon and my stomach was grumbling, and so I ordered an arancina in sauce.
What registered immediately is that this captured the flavor of Sicily: Bright and crunchy breading, the right amount of oil, rice of optimal consistency, and flavorful sauce—slightly sugary with acidic and full-bodied notes, thanks to a generous simmering of red wine. I also cursed with added satisfaction when Totuccio greeted me with massive cannoli that vaguely resembled forearms stuffed with ricotta.
My quest starts off on the right note, with a luscious bite of Palermo hospitality. The arancina cost me 3 euros.
After returning to the city's outer ring road, I emerged like a mole from a tunnel in front of A’ Vucciria, a restaurant chain run by rascals from Sicily. A' Vucciria has various sale points all over Milan. Here's a photo of me in front of one of them in Darsena:
I tried A' Vucciria shortly after it first opened and it wasn't that bad. But that was two years ago, and today I'd call it the Waterloo of tastebuds. The arancina—the round ones in sauce and therefore the Palermitian style, as the joint's name suggests—seemed pale, anemic, in need of a transfusion of white-hot oil. I can't say I predicted something good at that point.
That prediction became a certainty when I took my first bite. The breading was soggy, crumbling inward with the poke of a finger, soaked with oil. The rice was flavorless and the sauce too acidic. To describe it as "bad" would be an impulse of goodwill and compassion. It cost me 3 euros.
Braving the chilly weather, I took my beard and digestive tract to Kate Away on San Gottardo street, so not far from A’ Vucciria. I liked this shop a lot: It's small and welcoming, with white walls punctuated by small, warm lights. There are three tables.
Kate Away claims to have the “best arancina in town,” and I intended to decide whether or not this was true.
At first glance, the arancini were microscopic despite their gourmet price of 4.50 euro a piece. I ordered one that was round and in sauce. The arancina has a suspicious, incomprehensible hole on the bottom, and even that notwithstanding, the first bite said it all: Flavorless, stringy rice that stuck to my tongue, breading that seemed like it was from the day before yesterday, and sauce inside that was literally frozen despite having been microwaved, and congealed, off-white meat fat. I don't know what else to say, except that I definitely don't agree with the "best arancina in town" statement.
Like a rainbow trout swims against the current, I carried on even though the last arancina dampened my enthusiasm. I snuck into Betto, a pastry shop with an antique vibe aided by 1930s-style light fixtures that were hanging from the ceiling. I was seated at a table after ordering an arancino with meat. It arrived, pointed in the Catania style and therefore masculine.
The kind, diligent waitress appeared and offered me a knife and fork. Despite Milan's grease phobia, I declined the offer for silverware and ate my arancino with my fingers. Besides, fried oil helps keep your fingertips moisturized.
The arancino was nice and brown. I picked at the pointed tip with my index finger, and it made that "toc-toc" sound that promises strength. The breading was crispy and the rice compact—the only thing missing was sauce, which would've made me love it. All in all, not bad for the price of 3.50 euros.
I took Tram 9 to the Montenero-Bergamo stop and found, down the middle of the road, Rosticceria Leoncino. Here, it doesn't matter whether you call it arancino or arancina, despite whatever the counter attendant who shrugged at me and spoke with a thick Milanese accent said.
There were no arancini in sauce, so I chose the one with mozzarella. It was just after lunch time, and after taking one bite from the small ball that fit in the palm of my hand, I was struck by the total lack of affection the thing transmitted. There was only rice and a small cube of mozzarella within. The outer part was wilted, which wouldn't have bothered me if the entire thing didn't dangerously toe the line of "totally flavorless." It might've even crossed it. I don't know if it would've been better if served with sauce, but I didn't bring that up to them. The arancino/arancina cost 2.30 euros.
ANTICA FOCACCERIA SAN FRANCESCO
Antica Focacceria San Francesco is a historic staple in Palermo that today extends beyond the city limits. In Milan, the location is in the Porta Venezia district in the northeastern area of the city, and it's a hybrid between a cafeteria, a rotisserie and a restaurant. I decided to break my "no restaurants" rule, if only for the reputation the name carries.
When I was at the Antica's Palermo location last year, I ate a rice pancake that was downright sad, but I wouldn't hold it against them. I came to the Milan location in peace. The arancina that I was served had just been fried—it was white hot and burned my tongue, because I'm a glutton who doesn't know how to wait. Nevertheless, I thought the rice was well-cooked, the crust was ironclad, and the sauce carried a pronounced note of nutmeg to it. I approved of this arancina, although the price of 4 euro was rather steep.
As I headed further east on the map of Milan, I found myself in the presence of an arancino that was a product of the East Coast paradigm.
Not far from Piazzale Bacone lies Antica Sicilia, which advertised aracini for 2.80 a pop. The ambience is dated—it looked like a bar from the 1980s, with dull yellowish lighting and an inordinate love for navy blue decor—and the arancino is a disaster. The fact that it was, at that point, 5 PM and the arancino had obviously been fried a few hours earlier is too convenient of an alibi for the poorly executed, lifeless breading, overcooked rice and meatless meat filling. I couldn't even detect a crumb with a microscope. The whole thing was ultra-dense tomato paste that tasted strong and unpleasantly sweet.
I couldn't even finish it. My mood was plummeting in tandem with the setting sun, casting darkness over Milan and deep into my heart. I had to shake this sadness from my soul and find something that moved me, that made me feel at home.
PASTICCERIA LA SICILIANA
I went further northeast from the city's center into the Lambrate district and, rooting about, I entered the Pasticceria La Siciliana. Here, the interior resembled a pompous Sicilian pastry shop, boasting a well-polished wooden counter helmed by a kid with a thick Catanian accent. From his place under a half bust of Saint Agatha, the patroness of Catania, he informed me that they were out of meat arancini. There was only one with béchamel, prosciutto, and mozzarella left.
It was 6 PM and I was becoming more and more pessimistic, but the first bite I took exploded with genuine flavor. It was pure love, dedication and care—such harmony! The stuffing was creamy and balanced between calculated arrogance and refinement, the breading resistant despite having been microwaved, and the rice was by far the best I'd sampled all day. For two minutes, I felt at home after a long, palatal exile. And it only cost me 3 euros.
READ MORE: Where to Eat in Milan After Midnight
After seven and a half arancinos and arancinas, I could've stopped there. But the duty to document everything drove me further into the city's Ortica neighborhood to my final stop of L’Eoliana. The spot is more known for its pastries and shaved ice, but I was optimistic that I'd still find arancini in sauce. It was 7 PM and there were still a few behind the counter.
The well-tanned counter attendant brought me an arancino promptly reheated in the oven, and it was entirely satisfactory: The rich filling tasted almost like it does in Sicily, with a good dose of melted cheese laced throughout the sauce. The owner, who was very Sicilian, asked me to try the wine he makes himself. I didn't like it, but the arancino only cost me 3 euros.
So is it possible to find excellent arancini in Milan? The answer is yes, at least in two out of the five places I visited. So we're almost there. Alternatively, if you happen to be from Sicily and you're particularly homesick, I can make them for you myself at home. You have my word of honor.