In Search of the Perfect Arancini

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Everyone on the bus was dressed for the heat—shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops predominated. We were in Sicily departing from Taormina en route to Mt. Aetna.

“This is a lucky group,” announced our English-speaking guide. Outside the bus the sky was blue, palm trees swayed gently. “Today the weather is perfect. Often, it is not; and we are forced to cancel the climb. We don’t take chances with Mt. Aetna. ”

“Good thing it’s a nice day,” said a male voice behind me. Its owner, a boy in his late teens, had muscles like stretched elastic bands and shaggy brown bangs riding over the top of oversized eyeglasses. “ I wouldn’t want to miss this.”

“Where are you from?” I asked, thinking I detected an American accent.

“Walnut Creek, California. I’m here with my Mom. We’re visiting Sicily because Mom’s grandparents came from here. They lived around Ragusa. My grandparents still do. ”

The drive to Taormina to Aetna took two and- a- half hours. When the bus parked, everyone layered up with sweatpants, sweatshirts and turtlenecks. Taormina had been a balmy seventy degrees but the top of Aetna would be in the thirties. Over my sweatshirt I donned a bright yellow nylon windbreaker with a hood that I called my “chicken jacket” because in it I looked like a chicken—if a bird wore sunglasses.

At the staging area, we lined up to buy tickets for the Funvia, a cable car that would lift us high towards the mountain’s summit.

“Take one of those, “the ticket seller said in perfect English, attesting to the many tourists who had preceded me. He gestured to a row of heavy parkas hanging on a rack. “It’s cold up there, you’ll need it.”

Bundled in the oversized jacket, I maneuvered onto the same cable car as the young man and his mother. “Look,” he urged, pointing out the window. “Ski lifts. I never thought of Aetna as a ski resort.”

“We came to Sicily to introduce Tom to the family,” his mother said. “After he graduates from college, we’ll never get our hands on him again, so this is the perfect, maybe the only opportunity. We’re having a great time, aren’t we, Tom?”

“Terrific. And there’s my mission.”

“What mission?”

“Tom’s looking for the perfect arancini. You know, those rice balls you find everywhere in Sicily?”

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I had sampled arancini, that gob of deliciousness made from leftover rice molded around a filling of ground meat, a few peas and a little cheese, then fried. In a few years, arancini would become a commonplace New York City restaurant offering but this was 2000 when they were largely unknown and/or looked down on as peasant food.

“I’ll give you some arancini tips on the way back on the bus, “Tom promised, as we got off the gondola and piled onto waiting four-wheel drive vehicles. We drove over what looked like a moonscape with craters, hardened flows of nubby, black lava, and rocks. The car dropped us a quarter mile from our destination to finish the trek on foot in ankle-deep snow.

The trail to the crater was moderately steep. Winter boots would have been welcome but most of us wore sneakers. I felt sorry for those who, unwarned, were wearing clogs or sandals.

A few hundred feet from the summit a man-made barricade brought us to a halt. Judging by the steam pouring out of vents in the ground, Aetna was very alive. I put a hand over one of the holes to feel the steam pour forth, as though Aetna were a boiling kettle. It would have been a perfect way to relieve clogged sinuses, if you chose to do that standing on the side of a volcano in the snow.

For forty-five minutes, we clambered around making snowballs and investigating other vents. The air was clear and very cold. My feet were wet but the experience was so unique it didn’t bother me. The valley below looked very far away; from so far up I felt like a giant watching toy cars and busses run on thread-like roads.

In the gondola going down I steered the conversation back and asked Tom where to find the best aracini.

“Are you going to Cefalu?”

“Yes.”

“Then try the ones they sell at the square in front of the cathedral. Of course, Mom says that her mother makes the best arancini in Sicily but I thought the Cefalu ones were terrific. “

A week later, sitting in the windy square in Cefalu, I ate arancini. Tom was right; these were greaseless and delicious. I did more sampling in Marinello and later, in Palermo where the offerings were good but not quite as wonderful as the Cefalu version. I’m sure Tom’s grandmother’s arancini were wonderful and that she’d be surprised–and possibly appalled– that New York restaurants now charge fourteen dollars a plate for the what is considered a delicacy.

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