StoriesArancino or Arancina? Sicily’s Battle over the Gender of its Rice Ball

Arancino or Arancina? Sicily’s Battle over the Gender of its Rice Ball

Why do Catania and Palermo quarrel over the name of Sicily’s best-known street food? Local writer Sara Mostaccio traces the history of the clash over the gender of a rice ball.

Sara Mostaccio
May 07, 2024
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A culture war is currently taking place in Sicily. It has been running for decades – if not centuries – and the battleground is the island’s most famous street food. It is not a question of taste, but of language: should Sicily’s golden rice ball be called arancino or arancina?

At the root of this long-standing clash is grammar. In Italian most words have a gender: feminine words typically end in -a, masculine words in -o. Ordinary citizens, as well as renowned chefs, participate in the debate over the gender of Sicilian rice balls, which continues to be fervently discussed without a clear answer in sight – even the illustrious linguists of the Accademia della Crusca, Italy's most important linguistic institution founded in Florence in 1583, have been interrogated about the question. Yet, not even the Accademia della Crusca’s expert opinion managed to put an end to the matter.

Whether you say arancino or arancina, there is no disagreement on the delicious taste of the Sicilian street food par excellence. The fried rice ball, contained in a crispy shell of bread crumbs, is traditionally filled with ragu or butter, shredded ham, and béchamel. Today, you can taste infinite variations of the original recipes, with stuffings including mushrooms, pistachios, salmon, seafood and many other local ingredients. Catanians, for instance, love their arancino filled with fried aubergines in the style of the pasta alla norma, a recipe inspired by the work of native composer Vincenzo Bellini. And there are also options with Nutella or ricotta found across Sicily, for those with a sweet tooth.

Arancino 2Arancini are traditionally traditionally filled with ragu or butter, shredded ham, and béchamel, but today you can easily find dozens of contemporary variations made with ingredients ranging from mushrooms to pistachios. [Photo: Shutterstock]

So what’s the problem? Spelling. If the spelling dispute leaves you scratching your head, you have probably never heard of the long-running argument over the gender of this tasty delicacy. Sicily is split into two opposing teams – western Sicily calls it “arancina” (feminine), while eastern Sicily claims it is “arancino” (masculine). The sporting metaphor is not accidental, given that the two sides fervently root for their preferred name, squabbling as if it were their favorite team.

I am from Catania, so I obviously side with the masculine form, and more precisely with the form arancinu, which is the dialectal version of arancino. That’s right – if things weren’t already complicated enough, one should remember that in Sicilian dialect the -o at the end of Italian masculine words is replaced by a  -u.

The rivalry between Sicily’s two major cities – Palermo in the west, Catania in the east – has its roots in the distant past. For centuries, Palermo and Catania have been clashing over who has the best university, the most impressive monuments, the liveliest nightlife or the best food. In other words, about which city holds the island’s cultural hegemony. The result of this historical strife is that even a local delicacy can become a triggering topic.

The history of the arancino is at least as old as the linguistic issue related to it. Around 1000 CE, under the emir of Syracuse Ibn al-Timnah, the rice was shaped into a timbale to facilitate its transportation. During the Arab domination in Sicily, saffron-flavoured rice was a dish served on a tray from which guests took their portion with their hands and bundled it in the palm, adding vegetables and small pieces of lamb meat. We probably got the name from there: the rice ball looked like a small orange, the citrus fruit introduced by the Arabs during their domination of Sicily between the 9th and 11th centuries. The arancina derives both its shape and its name from the fruit, inheriting the feminine form used in all Western Sicily, including Palermo, Trapani, and Agrigento, from the Italian word arancia.

Later on, at the court of Frederick II of Swabia, King of Sicily in the 13th century, the timbale began to be split into single portions. Legend has it that King Federico, a real glutton, wanted to bring his favourite dish with him everywhere and his court chefs had to quickly develop a solution to satisfy the ruler’s requests. Each portion was breaded and fried to form a self-contained meal. It was easy to transport and eat during long trips around the island or while hunting in the forests.

shutterstock 2143440721 Orange-shaped arancine made in Palermo echo the Arab domination of Sicily between between the 9th and 11th centuries. [Photo: Shutterstock]

To resolve the gender dispute, the Accademia della Crusca, the oldest Italian language institution, was consulted in 2016. The linguists of the Accademia offered a balanced and diplomatic solution that proved both parties right. Its report holds that both “arancina” and “arancino” are acceptable. On the one hand, the feminine noun “arancina” is valid because it originates from the standard Italian name of the orange fruit, which is feminine. On the other hand, the masculine noun ”arancino” (or “arancinu”) can also be used, as it is linked to Sicilian, the local language.

Sicilians love to argue and the Accademia's intervention did not come close to settling the dispute. Catania continues to defend their arancino by saying that the earliest documents mentioning "a rice dish made in the shape of an orange" – the 1857 Sicilian-Italian dictionary of Giuseppe Biundi – use the masculine “arancinu.” Palermo still holds that grammatically the form “arancina” is correct since, in the Italian language, we typically differentiate the tree (arancio, masculine) from the fruit (arancia, feminine).

The street food culture war has not stopped. On the contrary, it has been reawakened by bouncing content on social media.

The clash will never end, but neither will the popularity of this perfect takeaway. Locals usually eat it while walking around or standing at the bar counter. It is served wrapped in a napkin and you can find it at bakeries, pastry shops, street stalls, local fairs, friggitorie (which mainly serve fried foods), and rosticcerie (takeaway joints offering ready-made food). It is also a cheap option for a quick lunch on the go as it rarely costs more than 2 euros.

The uproar around the gender issue ended up impacting a commercial business in Catania’s historical centre. Savia, a bar founded in 1897, has served tons of arancine over the past century, choosing to call them the Palermitan way. Claudio Lombardo, the fourth-generation owner, says his grandfather thought the term arancina was more accurate since the rice ball mimics the shape of an orange. For decades, no one paid attention to the name tag, until the Accademia della Crusca’s article inflamed the controversy. Lombardo recounts that people started insulting him, so in 2017 he decided to change the name tag to arancinu, choosing the local word.

An arancino by any other name

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An array of golden arancini on display, labeled with their flavors: ragù and butter. [Photo: Sara Mostaccio]

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A perfectly crispy, golden arancino, temptingly ready to be devoured. [Photo: Sara Mostaccio]

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A split arancino reveals its savory core of meat, cheese, and peas. [Photo: Sara Mostaccio]

Someone also attempted to introduce a gender-neutral term using arancin*, avoiding both the masculine or feminine forms. This new, socially-aware proposal was short lived as the asterisk was impossible to pronounce. Moreover, no Sicilian willingly accepts being wrong or changing opinion – the endless debate is still driven by the desire to stress a supposed cultural superiority.

Andrea Graziano, an entrepreneur who runs the restaurant FUD in both Catania and Palermo, proposed a kind of a truce serving an ”arancinie” main course consisting of two arancini and two arancine! It was an attempt to get everyone to agree and have a laugh about the fight.

Another attempt at solving the quarrel was made by the writer Andrea Camilleri, author of the Inspector Montalbano book series, from which a successful TV series was inspired. The inspector is fond of the arancini prepared by his trusty maid, Adelina. In the book Gli arancini di Montalbano, collecting short stories set in the imaginary city of Vigata in the Agrigento area, Camilleri chooses the masculine form even if in Agrigento it is usually called adopting the feminine one.

Sicilians rarely compromise on food. They are loyal to their local heritage. If you ask for an arancino in Palermo, they'll tell you  ”arancina, fimmina è!” (meaning “the arancina is female!”). The opposite happens in Catania. When you sit down at dinner with locals, the conversation will most likely end up about food. You can bet they'll argue about the authenticity of every single dish.

You can’t really go wrong with the food while traveling in Sicily. Nonetheless, you could end up believing there are right and wrong versions of every dish. Obviously, that's not true. Every family has their favorite variant and secret recipe. Speaking of arancini, everyone in Catania will tell you that Palermo is wrong and vice versa. Supporting arguments count for little. Everyone claims to be right, and no one will change their mind.

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After all, whatever you call this delicious fried shell, it is found throughout Sicily and satisfies all palates, making everyone agree at least on its taste.

So don’t get distracted by the gender fight and try them all. Just be careful to call it according to the side of Sicily you find yourself in, unless you want to be involved in an endless talk about the gender of a rice ball. [Photo: Shutterstock]

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But don’t worry if you do confuse the vowels at the end of the name – welcoming Sicilians will always forgive you any grammatical errors and never deny you a hot and crunchy arancino.

The best places to taste a very good arancino in Catania are Savia or Spinella, located next to each other on the main street Via Etnea. They are just in front of Villa Bellini, which is also a pleasant place to eat it. Villa Bellini is the oldest and largest green park in Catania, full of trees and adorned with busts of local musicians, writers, artists, and politicians. Locals love to rest here and enjoy the shade while tasting an arancino or a gelato.

If you’re strolling around the city center, head to Via Penninello 7 and order your arancino at Uzeta Bistrò. For a more rustic experience, note the address Antica Friggitoria Stella on Via Monsignor Ventimiglia 66. Their arancini are amazing. There, the Catania-born writer Goliarda Sapienza, author of The Art of Joy, loved to eat crispelle, a fried dough stuffed with ricotta or anchovies. Give them a try!

While in Palermo, Oscar is your best bet. This historic pastry shop has been open since 1965. Do not miss their desserts, too. Feeling very hungry? Head to Bar Touring on Via Lincoln 15. They serve extra large arancine filled with butter, meat, salmon, sausage, mushrooms, and even chocolate. A place loved by locals is Scatassa on Via Ammiraglio Rizzo 65. They are also renowned for the calzone fritto, a delicious fried pizza.

Palermo (as well as Syracuse) also has a day celebrating the arancina. It is the main dish on December 13, the feast of Saint Lucia. According to an old tradition, on this day Sicilians do not eat wheat-based foods such as bread or pasta. They are replaced with rice. The tradition is linked to a legend. Saint Lucia is credited with ending two famines in Palermo and Syracuse, so people avoid consuming wheat flour on her day as thanksgiving.

During the celebration, dating back to the 18th century, people eat piles of arancini, choosing mainly between the two classics: abburro (butter, ham, and béchamel) or accarne (ragu). No one remembers why they eat rice instead of wheat-based food – it is just a great excuse to binge on fried foods without feeling too guilty, at least until the following day. ||