Both the supplì and the arancino/a are Italian street food made from rice. Both are beloved comfort food mostly eaten as appetizers but can be consumed at almost any time of day or night. But one is based in Rome, the other in Sicily. And hence the origins and the recipes differ, as do the loyal defenders of their local specialties. There is even some disagreement over the spelling of the Sicilian delicacy.
The name of the supplì in the traditional Roman cuisine comes from the French term for “surprise” because it seems that a similar dish had arrived in the city with the Napoleonic troops. The full name of this recipe is “supplì al telefono” because when you cut into it, the mozzarella in the center creates a thread between the two parts, recalling a telephone from a bygone era.
The supplì is traditionally cylindrical in form and smaller than the arancino/a. It is made from cooked rice, typically left over from the night before. The rice is blended with meat ragù, which originally were chicken giblets. After the rice forms are molded by hand with the mozzarella in the center, they are dipped in egg, breaded, and fried. They are eaten while they are hot to preserve the “telephone” effect. The number of variations to the original recipe is limited but increasing. In addition to the classic with ragù, there are vegetarian tomato supplì, as well as those with Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe.
The name of the arancino/a comes from the golden color that is reminiscent of the orange. The historical origins are not very clear; perhaps they date back to the Arab domination from the 9th to the 11th century. A sweet version may date back to the Feast of Saint Lucia in the 17th century as it is traditional in Sicily to eat arancini/e on December 13, Santa Lucia’s feast day.
Like the supplì, the arancino/a is a ball of leftover rice that is breaded with egg and fried. But from here the similarities diverge. The Sicilian version is larger (8-10 centimeters) and has at least 100 variations. Typically, there is a filling of ragù, peas, caciocavallo or mozzarella, and saffron. Some have seafood, other types of cheese, salami, butter, or tomato.
Within Sicily, there are other differences besides the filling. In Palermo, the arancina—in the feminine form—is round like the orange. In Catania, the arancino—in the masculine form—is conical in shape perhaps inspired by the silhouette of Etna.
Arancina or arancino? Even the Accademia della Crusca, which gives the “final word” on the Italian language and is the oldest linguistic academy in the world, weighed in on the controversy. The Academy declared that both forms are valid. Arancina in the feminine form is traditionally the fruit from the tree, while the masculine form is the tree itself (for example, mela for apple and melo for apple tree; oliva for olive, olivo for olive tree). It would seem that arancina is preferred but La Crusca recognizes arancino as valid in the Sicilian dialect (from aranciu).