Crispy Risotto Balls with Warm Mozzarella Centers

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

Sicilians call these crisp and delicious rice balls arancine, or “little oranges,” because they turn golden in the hot oil. Romans make a similar dish they call suppli at telephono. Its name comes from the fact that when you bite into a ball and pull one-half of it away from the other half, the molten cheese center forms a long string that recalls the cord suspended between the base and the handset of a phone. No matter which name they travel under, these are heavy hors d’oeuvres, the kind you serve when the entire dinner menu is made up of an assortment of hors d’oeuvres.

Cooking Notes: Spinach is the primary flavor in this dish. Don’t cloud the picture with strong stock. Instead, I thin out the stock with water to leave room for other flavors. The biggest problem with risotto is that people don’t sweat the onions long enough. This is the foundation of the flavor. Caramelizing would be too much for the delicate spinach and lemon flavors, but you need to cook the onions until they are soft and translucent. Also, never cook the risotto over high heat. If the liquid boils too hard, it evaporates before it can be absorbed into the rice.

Entertaining Notes: You can save time by cooking the risotto the day before. Note, too, the fried risotto balls can be kept warm in the oven for up to 2 hours before serving. Or, if you are serving a large group and want to skip shaping the small balls, omit the mozzarella, pour the risotto into a baking dish, sprinkle fine dried bread crumbs and freshly grated Parmesan cheese over the top, and heat in a 400°F oven until the risotto bubbles, about 30 minutes. Spoon it onto small plates for a delicious sit-down first course.

Wine Notes: Open a cool, light, fruity Beaujolais or similar wine.

Cooking Methodfrying


Total Timeunder 2 hours

Make Ahead RecipeYes

Kid FriendlyYes

OccasionBuffet, Cocktail Party, Family Get-together, game day

Recipe Coursehors d'oeuvre

Dietary Considerationsoy free, tree nut free

Equipmentblender, deep fryer


Taste and Texturecheesy, chewy, crisp, garlicky, herby, rich, savory, umami


  • Finely ground sea salt, preferably gray salt
  • ½ pound baby spinach
  • 3½ cups water
  • 1/8 teaspoon powdered ascorbic acid (vitamin C) (optional)
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme (optional)
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ pound fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 or 3 large eggs
  • 1½ cups fine dried bread crumbs
  • Peanut oil for deep-frying


  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the spinach, and blanch for 10 seconds. Drain the spinach in a colander. Rinse under running cold water, then squeeze well to remove most of the water. Place the spinach in a blender with ½ cup of the water and the ascorbic acid, if using (it sets the bright green color). Process until smooth. Set aside.

  2. In a saucepan, combine the chicken stock and the remaining 3 cups water over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low to keep the diluted stock at a bare simmer.

  3. In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook until the onion sizzles, then reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and soft, about 10 minutes; do not let the onion color. Add the thyme, if desired, and let it crackle for about 10 seconds. Stir in the rice, coating it evenly with the oil, and cook, stirring, until hot, about 2 minutes.

  4. Adjust the heat to maintain a simmer. Add the wine and simmer, stirring, until almost all the wine is absorbed.

  5. Begin adding the hot stock 1 cup at a time, stirring often and adding more liquid only when the previous addition has been absorbed. It should take about 20 minutes for the rice to be just shy of al dente, with a little starchiness left in the center of each grain. You may not need all the liquid; if you need a little more, use boiling water.

  6. Remove the risotto from the heat, stir in the Parmesan cheese and lemon zest, and then stir in the spinach puree. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Immediately pour the risotto onto a rimmed baking sheet. It should form a thin layer. Place uncovered in the refrigerator for about 1 hour to chill.

  7. To form each ball, spread about 2 tablespoons of the cooled risotto in the palm of your hand. Place a cube of mozzarella cheese in the center. Shape the risotto into a sphere about the size of a golf ball, with the cheese cube in the center. Repeat with the remaining risotto and mozzarella, placing the balls on a baking sheet as they are formed.

  8. Spread the flour on a dinner plate. Break 2 eggs into a shallow bowl and beat lightly. Spread the bread crumbs on a second dinner plate. Roll the risotto balls first in the flour, coating them evenly and shaking off the excess. Then dip them in the eggs, letting any excess drip back into the bowl. Finally, coat the risotto balls evenly with the bread crumbs.

  9. As the balls are ready, place them on a clean baking sheet. If you run short of beaten egg, use the remaining egg. Cover the balls and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours to firm the coating before frying.

  10. Pour the peanut oil to a depth of at least 4 inches into a deep fryer or a heavy, 8-inch-deep stockpot and heat to 350°F. Working in small batches, add the risotto balls to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, 2 to 2½ minutes. Do not crowd the pan. Using a slotted spoon or tongs, transfer the balls to paper towels to drain for 1 to 2 minutes, then place on a baking sheet and keep warm in a 200°F oven. They will keep for up to 2 hours.

  11. To serve, cover a large platter with a cloth napkin (to keep the balls from rolling around) and arrange the balls on top. Serve warm.


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