Everybody knows that…
The male gender of the name which refers to the Sicilian rice-based specialty seasoned with tomato sauce and meat (or something else) splits the island in half: arancina (the round one) in the western side and arancino (the round or pointy one, the latter may be inspired by Etna’s shape) in the eastern side, except some areas in the areas of Ragusa and Siracusa. The tasty Sicilian rice ball takes its name by analogy with the golden round fruit of the orange tree; one may thus draw the conclusion that the word’s proper gender is the female one: arancina. But it is not that easy, let’s see why.
The origins of this dish may be traced back to the Arab domination of Sicily which lasted from the IX to the XI century. Arabs used to roll some saffron rice into a ball in the palm of their hands, and then season it with lamb meat before eating it. Hence the metaphorical name: a little rice ball shaped like a small orange (Arabic: naranj). As stated in the Liber de ferculis of Giambonino from Cremona, in the Arab world, every round small meatball, resembling fruits in shapes and dimensions, was named after the fruit: oranges as well as apricots, dates, hazelnuts. The comparison with the oranges was quite usual in Sicily as the island was rich in groves of orange trees.
Actually, though, there is no record of this food cooking in the literature, in the chronicles, diaries, vocabularies, ethnographic texts, recipe books and so on, until the second half of the XIX century. It therefore appeared much more recently than one might think at first sight. Moreover, it must be pointed out that in the Dizionario siciliano-italiano of Giuseppe Biundi (1857), the first Sicilian language vocabulary recording the voice “arancinu”, the definition describes it as “a sweet rice dish shaped like oranges”: sweet, not salty. But shifts sweet/salty are not uncommon in the different stages of cuisine, if you imagine that even the Neapolitan pizza is still today recorded as a sweet short-crust pastry with cream in the Scienza in cucina of Pellegrino Artusi (the 1911 edition). In the Nuovo vocabolario siciliano-italiano of Traina (1868), indeed, arancinu refers to the term crucchè: “a small ball made with rice or potato or else”, a preparation to be compared with the recipe 199 in the Scienza in cucina, which calls for a savory taste. Yet in the above mentioned records, neither meat nor tomato are mentioned and indeed it is hard to say when these two ingredients were added to the recipe, also because we know that it was not until the nineteenth century that tomato began to be grown in the south of the peninsula. With this in mind, the link between the Sicilian supplì and the Arab tradition is no longer so clear-cut, while one could get the idea that it is a dish born out of as a rice pudding in the second half of the XIX century, but turned into a salted specialty almost immediately.
In the Sicilian dialect, as often recorded in dialects’ dictionaries, the orange fruit is aranciu and becomes arancio in the local Italian language. Moreover, the standard Italian language began to make a gender-based distinction in the second half of the XX century: the female gender for the fruits’ names and the masculine for the trees’ ones, and many speakers from different Italian regions, including Toscana, still today keep using arancio to mean arancia. The diminutive form arancinu standing for “small orange”, arancio in the regional Italian language, corresponds to the Sicilian term aranciu standing for “orange”: hence the male term for the rice croquette. The first proof of the word arancino in the Italian lexicography may be found in the Dizionario moderno of Panzini (the 1942 edition), which records the masculine and marks it as a dialectal Sicilian term. That is, thus, the term being reported by both dialectal and Italian vocabularies and put on the list of the Italian Traditional Agrifood-stuffs by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies; and that is also the term Inspector Montalbano brought to television and books (Andrea Camilleri, Montalbano’s riceballs, 1999) and therefore to all Italians’ knowledge.
Dictionaries thus agree on the gender of arancino, not on the gender of the name referring to the orange tree’s fruit: the two variants arancio and arancia exist side by side, with the female form prevailing in the written use but a wider spread of the male form in the regional dialects in large parts of Italy.
Yet the female is perceived to be as more accurate – at least in the formal language - since the gender’s opposition is typically used, with very few exceptions, in our language to make a distinction between the tree and its fruit. It may be assumed that the prestige of the standard language code, to which urban areas have usually been more receptive, resulted in the prevalence of the female form arancia over the male one arancio in the speakers’ daily language in Palermo. As they adopted the female variant to mean the fruit, the expression, in its altered form, has also been used to term the rice croquette, hence arancina. As far as the areas of Ragusa and Siracusa, a wider spread of the dialectal form to mean the fruit partuallu/partwallu rather than aranciu may have played a role: when using the Italian word to mean the fruit, the radically different local outcome may have led to employ the codified word arancia, hence arancina.
In conclusion, those who use arancino Italianize the dialectal morphological form, while those who say arancina do nothing but to bring the term used in the standard Italian language back. This assumption would further be borne out in the only one attesting document of arancina, found in the literature of the late nineteenth century: “the rice balls, each of them as big as a melon” in the book “Viceré” of Federico de Roberto, who adhered to the Tuscany’s linguistic model. At the end of the century, the female variant was recorded by Corrado Avolio in his Dizionario dialettale siciliano in Siracusa’s area and later by Giacome de Gregorio in his Contributi al lessico etimologico romanzo con particolare considerazione al dialetto e ai subdialetti siciliani representing Palermo’s province. Arancina has also been reported by the Italian lexicography: by the 1917 ZINGARELLI, which defines it as a pie seasoned with mincemeat and rice, in Sicily”, and by the Panzini in the 1927 edition; however, later no trace was left.
In his restaurants “bottega sicula” in Palermo and Catania, in an attempt to unify the two Island’s halves on Santa Lucia’s day, Andrea Graziano, chef and entrepreneur from Catania, has served the rice balls: “a portion with two pointy rice balls seasoned with anchovies and fennel, and two round rice balls, cooked following the Norma recipe, with fried eggplants, ricotta, tomato and basil”. A middle-earth, where Catania’s arancini and Palermo’s arancine live side by side and blend together into one specialty with a unique taste, symbol of the Sicilian identity.
Everybody knows that…