Anthony Bourdain had a great line for writing about foods he greatly admired but was trying on the fly. “I am hardly an expert on this subject,” he would say of Hanoi pho or Manila sisig. “Merely an enthusiast.” I have similar feelings about arancini. I didn’t grow up eating fried rice balls, but since moving here, I don’t think I’ve successfully resisted them once.
Arancini translates as “little oranges,” but that’s just one way they can look. They range in size from golf ball to grapefruit and come in different shapes: spheres, orbs, and cones of soft, saffron-laden rice. They’re often filled with meat and peas, but eggplant, mushroom, and tomato are common, too. After being shaped and stuffed, they’re battered and breadcrumbed. Each one takes several minutes to fry.
These days when I’m craving rice balls, I head to Best Sicily Bottega (87 Beaver Street, between Hanover and Wall streets). I’m no expert, but I know enough to tell you that this small Sicilian shop is special.
The owners, Silvia Lombardo and Nicolas Calia, are Sicilian. They opened Best Sicily in the Financial District last May, but the only reason I know about it is because a co-worker passed it on their lunch break. The shop is hiding on Beaver Street, a dark, scaffolding-covered corridor where businesses set out their trash for collection. There are no other restaurants on the block.
The first time you see it, you might wonder if you’re in the right place. The store is stacked from floor to ceiling with imported Italian foods. There are red and green pestos, panettone left over from the holidays, and at least six kinds of olive oil. In the middle of the shop, there’s a small pastry case. That’s where you’ll find the softball-sized arancini I’ve come to love.
The selection seems to change, but everything I’ve tried has been quite good. The first time, I had the one with beef ragu and green peas. It was good enough that I came back a week later with a friend. That time, there were cone-shaped arancini, too. They were filled with eggplant and tomato for the preparation known as arancini alla norma, which takes Sicily’s most famous pasta and puts it inside a ball of rice.
The recipes come from Lombardo, who has been importing Sicilian foods for years. When a restaurant opened up across from her apartment, she started getting ideas. “I wanted to bring a little Sicily to the middle of nowhere,” she says. The building had been vacant for months. The previous tenant, a taqueria, had failed, but she thought a Sicilian market might work.
Because of the location, I’m tempted to call Best Sicily a hidden gem. But the truth is, it has quite the following already: 28,000 followers on Instagram, the last time I checked. I suspect that has something to do with Calia, who runs the popular account @visit__sicily. He promotes the business in videos filmed behind the counter and even created an instructional video on how to get there; it has over 30,000 views.
Some of its fans must have gotten lost on the way, because there’s never been a line when I visited. The shop is busiest around lunch when Italian-speaking customers crowd the counter looking for espresso. Often, they leave with focaccia, olive oil cake, and almond cookies, too. One thing I’ve learned: The best time to visit is Thursday. That’s when Best Sicily sells meatballs, and the shop smells most like a nonna’s kitchen.
Best Sicily Bottega is open Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Sunday.