In November 2010 I posted a story about the rice balls at Joe's Superette in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. In the piece I interviewed Pizzacentric's Sicilian Critic, Nick Nicolosi, to see how he thought they measured up against those served in Sicily — the birthplace of rice balls.
Nick found Joe's balls "interesting" and overall pretty good, but commented that the rice was overcooked, the meat was not in the center, and that they were too small.
While rice balls are not part of my regular eating agenda, I am interested in discovering how foods in the US differ from their Italian counterparts. So while visiting Nick's hometown of Catania this April, he brought me to Savia — a standing-room restaurant (with a formal "tea room" upstairs) — where, he assured me, the rice balls are primo-quality.
They were different from (and better than) any I've found in the US — including at Joe's Superette. The ragù rice ball at Savia — shaped like a pine cone — has a breaded and fried exterior with a tomato sauce and rice filling (the rice is, in fact, cooked al dente), and substantial pieces of "ragù meat" (carefully trimmed first-choice beef course-ground into a minsé with onion, tomato, and spices) in the center. Bites include a stretchy string of melted Emmental cheese that doesn't at all overwhelm the main flavors — but instead adds to the fun!
If I lived in Catania, I would eat rice balls often — but not too often: I'm sure they pack a few calories.
Click the above photo for a short video from my visit to Savia. I love that the atmosphere and counter-staff's apparel are rather formal. Could an authentic Rice Ball-eria and tea room thrive in New York?!
[Note: In NYC, rice balls are usually served as an snack food in corner pizzerias. Watch the video only if you're interested in rice balls or in seeing this food in its more formal Sicilian setting — or if you find it interesting to watch two guys talking about and eating rice balls while standing up.]
Map Savia (call ahead for days/hours).