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February 1, 2022
A Very Roman Rice Ball

Everyone loves arancini, but real Romans reach for the tomato-spiked suppli.

One of my favorite street foods from Rome is supplì al telefono—fried and breaded rice croquettes the size of a small child’s fist. They are similar to arancini, the world-famous Sicilian rice balls, but less exuberant and simpler, without the rich core of ragù or all the fancy saffron and peas. They are more reserved and restrained, and we are all the better for it.

Roman supplì, as a category, are simple. The rice is plainly cooked with a little chopped onion and tomato sauce, perhaps with a little ragù mixed in and wrapped around a small piece of mozzarella cheese before being breaded and deep-fried. The magic trick of the dish is all in the small piece of mozzarella that melts completely as it sits in a steam table or on top of a warm pizza oven; diners break open the croquette, releasing the creamy, starchy flavor of the rice as the mozzarella pulls apart into long, old-fashioned telephone wires.

Supplì were a standard snack in my Roman childhood, especially useful for warming my hands on a cold, rainy day while waiting dismally for the public bus I took back and forth to school. Available at every pizzeria or tavola calda (small food shops selling hot, prepared food for those unfortunate enough not to have access to a home-cooked meal). It is one of many Roman foods I had always taken for granted, and that I was surprised not to have when I first moved to the United States at the age of 15.

I tried making them at home, but I never quite got that balance of warm Arborio rice, melting cheese, and a crispy exterior—until I realized that the secret was a steam table or food warmer, exactly like what a tavola calda had. As the supplì sat in the warmth, the cheese transformed to a properly molten stage so that it did indeed stretch like thin telephone wires as you pulled it apart.

For a long time, whenever I went back to the city, they remained just as they always had been in the Roman culinary lexicon—a somewhat banal snack that you ate as street food, good and comforting but not necessarily mind-blowing. They probably started with homemade versions, but as commercial production and distribution took over at the cheap street food spots, the quality predictably degraded.

One year, however, while dining and refreshing my Roman food knowledge, eating at a white-hot new pizzeria in Trastevere, I was offered a trio of supplì, handcrafted in the restaurant kitchen (of course) and upgraded with flavors taken from the holy pantheon of Roman pastas: carbonara, cacio e pepe, and amatriciana. Crispy and crunchy on the outside, with soft creamy rice and a melting, almost liquid piece of cheese. They were even better than what I remembered.

Americans are always horrified at the idea of deep-frying in olive oil, but extra-virgin olive oil has been used for over 3,000 years in the Mediterranean.

Supplì were back, again a shining star of street food treasures, treated with reverence and care by rock-star baker Gabriele Bonci (who even makes a version with pasta instead of rice) and with a whole shop dedicated to them, opened by Michelin-starred chef Arcangelo Dandini called Supplizio.

A good supplì is a crisp, fried shell, with the appropriate melted cheese strings as you break and pull it apart. With all the memories I have of enjoying this snack as a child in Rome, the simplicity of the original version, made with just tomato sauce to flavor the rice and plain mozzarella in the middle, remains my favorite—but it’s fun to see it played with and refined.

I even love the idea of supplì filled with amatriciana pasta instead of rice, or using wildly different flavorings, because the reality is that supplì are the best thing ever to make with leftover risotto, whether in a restaurant or at home. All you need is risotto, a bit of mozzarella, and breading—plus, of course, oil for frying.

I have often drawn a connection from the Roman love of deep-frying in olive oil to the ancient Roman Jewish community, who obviously would not have used the other traditional frying fat, lard. But truth be told, in modern times, people are using cheap seed oils to fry supplì in. Americans are always horrified at the idea of deep-frying in olive oil (something I wrote about years ago for the Atlantic online), but extra-virgin olive oil has been used for over 3,000 years in the Mediterranean, to cook with as well as to eat raw, and even as a moisturizer.

Traditionally, Italians in olive-producing regions used olive oil to cook because it was the fat they produced. It was only after World War II that commercially produced seed oils became cheap and ubiquitous and began to be used for cooking both in commercial settings and at home. But to cook or deep-fry in extra-virgin olive is to add so much flavor to the food—it’s one of the things that makes food taste Mediterranean.

Given that these crispy rice croquettes are so versatile, feel free to modify the flavorings according to your whims. I am sharing a recipe for the classic supplì al telefono, but they are easily modified using whatever you have on hand. I’ve included instructions for frying in extra-virgin olive oil because I think it adds to the flavor, but by all means, sub in cheap, industrial vegetable oil if you don’t trust me. That’s what most of the tavola calda were using, so you’ll be in good company.

RECIPE: Supplì al Telefono

Sara Jenkins

Sara Jenkins is the chef owner of Nina June in Rockport, ME and also owns, with her brother, an olive farm in Tuscany where she never gets to spend enough time.