Polpette di Riso
Recipe and photos by Emma Givens as part of her Calabrese Cooking with Nonna series
Polpette di riso, (often pronounced “perpetti” in my Italo-Canadese family) are fried rice balls with parmesan cheese and parsley. They’re a delicious staple in the households of countless Calabrese nonni. My Nonna Rita was no exception.
At least once a month, my brother Michael, cousin Victoria and I would play ball in the hallway with my nonno while my nonna, aunt, and mom prepared polpette di riso before dinner. As soon as they’d cooled off enough to handle, we kids would run in, hop up with our knees on the chairs, and pop as many rice balls into our mouths as we could get away with before dinner. Then we’d have them as a side with our meat and vegetable dishes too. There were always plenty to go around.
Polpette di riso are universally appealing (meaning, fried) snacks making them the perfect first dish to share with you as part of my series Calabrese Cooking with Nonna. As part of this series, I’m learning with my mom and aunts how to make the recipes my Nonna Rita was so well known for in her lifetime.
Now, before we dig in, it’s important to note a universal law:
Nonna’s always make big batches.
This recipe makes enough polpette di riso to snack on and eat as a side for a dinner with 10 guests. (You’ll also see a tip for how to freeze the rice balls before frying if you can’t possibly eat this many in one go!)
One more note before we begin: Arborio rice is key because most other varieties aren’t starchy enough for this recipe to work.
Nonna Rita Molinaro’s Polpette di Riso
Calabrese Rice Balls
Makes about 50 polpette di riso
3 cups (750 grams) Arborio rice
1 to 1½ cup grated parmesan cheese, or for the lactose-intolerant, a hard goat cheese (consider getting a recommendation from your local cheesemonger)
¼ cup chopped parsley
5 whole eggs
3 tablespoons salt, plus ½ teaspoon
3 tablespoons bread crumbs, plus ½ cup in a separate bowl to roll the rice balls in
1 liter sunflower oil for frying
For cooking the rice:
Add 6 cups of water to a large pot with ½ teaspoon 3 pinches (about ½ tsp) of salt. Bring the salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Rinse the rice thoroughly, then add it to the boiling water. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Allow rice to simmer until al dente.
Drain the rice and put it in a large bowl. Place the rice in the fridge, ideally overnight, as the rice needs to be cold before continuing with the rest of the recipe.
To make the rice balls:
Take the cold rice out of the fridge. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the eggs together. Add the eggs to the rice. Mix thoroughly with your hands.
Once the eggs are thoroughly absorbed into the rice, add the salt and the 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Add the parsley and continue mixing thoroughly with your hands until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
Use your spoon of choice to scoop up the rice mixture. (If you’d like softer rice balls – and to finish the recipe faster – pick up a tablespoon. If you’d like more traditional, crispy rice balls, grab a teaspoon.) Roll into a ball between your palms. Roll the rice ball around on the plate of bread crumbs until thoroughly covered. If necessary, reshape it into a ball, and set aside on a parchment-paper-lined cookie tray (or another flat surface).
Repeat until you have a full tray of breaded rice balls.
To fry the rice balls:
At this point, you’ll want to fry the first batch because waiting can cause the balls to flatten and even crack when you do fry them.
In my nonna’s kitchen, there was often more than one person preparing polpette di riso, which meant one person could begin to fill a second tray with rice balls as nonna began to fry the first. If this kind of teamwork is possible for you, then you’ll end up saving time!
In a deep pot, add sunflower oil that would fully cover the rice balls twice over (usually around 4 ½ inches of oil). Set to high heat.
Once the oil is hot and slightly rolling with bubbles, prepare to add the first, “test” rice ball. Slowly turn the ball in the oil until golden brown on all sides. If the first rice ball takes more than 3 minutes or turns out greasy, you likely need to increase the heat.
Once you’re sure the oil is hot enough, to reduce splashback, gently drop the remaining rice balls into the water one at a time. Allow the rice balls to fry and turn in the oil until they’ve floated to the top and turned golden brown on all sides.
Use a tool like a spider strainer to lift the rice balls out of the pot. Place the rice balls in a bowl covered in a paper towel to continue draining the excess oil as they cool.
Repeat rolling the rice mixture into balls and frying until you’ve used it all up, or until you’ve fried the quantity of polpette di riso you want to eat.
Any additional rice balls that haven’t been fried can be put into freezer bags and frozen for up to 3 months, so you can easily fry them at a later date. The key is to not throw the rice balls into the bag haphazardly because weighing on each other will make them go flat. Instead, lay the freezer bag flat on a hard surface and add in the polpette so there’s just one layer. Seal the freezer bag and put it in the freezer the same way, lying flat.
And there you have it – authentic polpette di riso, fit to feed a village. They’re the original “bet you can’t eat just one” challenge. (I have always, always lost — and happily.)
Nonna Rita would be very proud to have helped feed your family with a recipe from her Calabrese kitchen. It’d be my honor if you make the recipe and let me know in the comments how you liked them.
Polpette di Riso
Prep Time: 60 Minutes
Cooking Time: 40 Minutes
Total time: 1 Hour 40 Minutes
Servings: 50 polpette di riso
Emma Givens is a copywriter, content marketer, and writing coach for entrepreneurs, and the proud granddaughter of 2 Calabrese immigrants who came to Toronto in the 1950s. In her series Calabrese Cooking with Nonna, she reconnects with her grandmother who passed in 2020 by recreating her homemade culinary classics — and reveals a few family stories along the way.