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Before Food Network aired cutthroat culinary competition and created stars out of psycho Chefs, terrible cooks, and precocious tots, there was Molto Mario. In 1996, when Food Network featured professional cooks—Mario Batali was one of the first and one of the best. His show, Molto Mario, was simple—he cooked behind the counter while three of his friends watched and chatted. He supplied no recipes, moved along at a quick clip, and he never repeated himself, so if you wanted to reproduce his dish of the day, you’d better pay attention.
As Mario cooked, he talked about Italy, its history, his favorite spots, and the ingredients he was using. The first show I watched starred arancini: stuffed, fried, rice balls made from leftover risotto. During the show’s nine-year run, he shared his recipes for tortelli, pizza, wild boar, grilled smoked mozzarella, and other examples of regional Italian cuisine. In 2005, when Food Network moved away from skilled, professional chefs demonstrating cooking techniques toward amateur cooks competing in staged, chaos-driven productions, Mario dropped “Molto” and added “Iron Chef” to his name. I just read a piece in Variety that said Food Network is bringing back Molto Mario in 2018—music to my ears.
One of the best restaurant meals I ever had was at Batali’s Los Angeles-based, Osteria Mozza: every bite was exceptional, with impeccable service, a golden, romantic setting, and painfully loud, head-banging rock and roll in the background. Restaurant industry rumors suggest that Mario’s preference for loud music also turns the tables at his restaurants more quickly. I do remember that our desire for peace and quiet did outweigh our desire to linger over dessert.
Anyways, in 2010, Mario and his partners Joe and Lidia Bastianich, opened the first North American Eataly in New York City to lines around the block. So, imagine my delight when I realized that the Chicago version was directly behind our hotel. I can actually run over when I need a shallot, a lemon, or a pound of white truffles.
I want to love Eataly, but it’s taken me five visits to understand the layout, figure out how to pay, locate the gelato and coffee beans, and find my way out. The Italian superstore isn’t big on first-timer orientation, product information, or well-informed clerks. And it is arrogantly expensive—I paid $10.00 for a shot of espresso poured over a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream, $9.00 for a jar of spaghetti sauce, and $5.00 for a single arancini. But a loaf of excellent “rustic” bread was $3.00, a pound of fresh tagliatelle was $4.00, and a shallot, just $1.50. Anyways, for now it’s my go-to store for milk, bread, and an occasional snack at the Nutella Bar. Needless to say, I won’t have Eataly to complain about in Lacey.
Mario Batali’s Arancini
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 4 ounces yellow onion, finely diced
- 10 cups lightly salted water
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
- Zest of 1 lemon
- ¾ cup freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 2 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 20 ½-inch dice
- 20 peas
- 1 cup flour
- 1 egg, beaten
- ¼ cup panko breadcrumbs, passed through a seive
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- Salt, to taste
Bring a large pot with the 10 cups of water to a boil, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place a saucepan over medium heat, and add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Add the diced onions to the pan and cook until they become tender. When the onions are translucent, add the rice and toast the grains, making sure to coat them with the oil and mixing for 5 minutes. Using a large ladle, add 1 cup of hot water until the rice is just covered, stirring continuously until the water is just above the surface of the rice, keeping the liquid at a consistent boil. Repeat this process until you have added all the water and the risotto is cooked through.
When the risotto is al dente, stir in the cubed butter, lemon zest, and grated Parmigiano Reggiano until all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Season with salt, to taste.
Remove the pan from the heat and spread the risotto on the baking sheet lined with parchment paper to allow it to cool. Once it has cooled, roll portions of the risotto in your hands to form balls of about 4 ounces, and stuff each one with a piece of mozzarella and a pea, sealing any holes.
Place the flour, beaten egg, and breadcrumbs in separate bowls. Coat one risotto ball first with the flour, then with the egg, and finally with the breadcrumbs, then place it back on the baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat this process until all the risotto balls have been coated thoroughly.
In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil until it is almost smoking. Cook the arancini in the oil until they become golden brown all over. Remove each rice ball to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Serve warm, topped with a sprinkling of grated Parmigiano Reggiano.