As a child, going for Saturday night pizza with my family was one of my favourite things to do. I used to love our local pizzeria’s laidback atmosphere – paper tablecloths, unfussy service, orders shouted across the room – and the fact I could order a full pie (always a margherita) all to myself.
What I loved even more, though, was getting the starters – i fritti.
My brother and I would pick supplì, crocchette and fiori di zucca, scoffing them down while still piping hot, strings of melted mozzarella oozing onto our greasy fingers. My mum would opt for olive ascolane – which I would only start appreciating as a teenager – and filetti di baccala.
To me, fritti were the highlight of the meal. They spelled comfort, deliciousness and pleasure, even when the world outside wasn’t great.
Over twenty years later, that truth still stands.
Fritti – and I’m Roman, supplì specifically – are the things that can make any lunch infinitely better, soothe my hangovers if I’ve indulged a little too much the night before, and fill my stomach and soul with a perfect mix of flavour and nostalgia at any point during the day (raise your hand if you’ve ever stopped for a supplì mid-afternoon).
I am not alone in feeling this way. Visit any rosticceria across the Eternal City, and, more often than not, two out of three people will be ordering a crocchetta or supplì alongside their pizza slices and roasted chicken, or as a snack to ‘tide them over’ till dinner. They’ll ask for the crunchy balls to be heated up, per favore, then eat them standing just outside, or take them home as a prized possession.
“Fritti anchor us back to our roots,” says Fabrizio Piazzolla, one of the owners of Supplizio, a gourmet friggitoria in the heart of Rome that specialises in fried foods. “Food has become such a polished, Instagrammable affair. Fritti are the opposite. They’re not picture-perfect or complicated. They’re just good. I think that simplicity is what makes us love them so much.”
That, and the fact they pack so much gorgeousness under their beautifully crisp exterior. There are fried foods across cultures, sure, but none are quite the Italian kind: cheese-heavy, crunchy, often meaty and carby all at the same time. No wonder we’re obsessed.
It’s not just Rome. Across Italy, fritti appear on the culinary repertoire in one form or another: gnocco fritto in Emilia Romagna and olive ascolane in Marche, cuoppo and fried pizza in Naples, and panzerotti in Puglia. But also arancini in Sicily – perhaps the most ‘famous’ Italian fried item abroad, thanks to the huge wave of Sicilian immigrants to the States, Canada and South America during the 20th century – and seadas in Sardinia.
In all their nuances, fritti might be one of the most unifying foods we share.
HISTORY OF FRITTI
They’re also one of the most ancient – though the first to fry were actually the Egyptians, who used the technique for pastry dough.
In our gastronomic canon, fritti date back to ancient Roman times, when our ancestors used to fry foods in cooked honey or in a mixture of garum, oil and wines, only to then pour the cooking liquid over the final dish to make it soft and juicy again (crunchiness – now synonymous with quality fried food – was not really part of the equation).
Both taste and method evolved over the centuries: frying as we (sort of) know it today started to take hold first in the Middle Ages and then during the Renaissance, with the introduction of animal fats, a prerogative of the wealthiest classes.
Eventually, as lard and, later, cheap cooking oil entered regular households, fried foods began to be embraced by the rest of the population, turning it into a staple of peasant cooking everywhere; fried pizza, for instance, is said to have been ‘invented’ at the end of WWII to satisfy the needs of Naples’ hungry citizens, many of whom could no longer afford even a classic margherita. Friggitorie (shops specialising in fried foods) became ubiquitous, as did having fritti as a snack – Italian’s own version of street food. Across the country, pizzerie bestowed fritti with the role of antipasto, making children like me extra excited for pizza night.
Their reputation lost a bit of luster in recent years – blame diet culture and the fear of anything deep-fried – but for generations that were raised with them, the love never really left us.
“People got a bit ‘scared’ of fritti,” Piazzolla says. “But ultimately, I think they remain the ultimate crowd pleasers.”
He couldn’t be more right. Courgette flowers stuffed with anchovy and mozzarella then coated in flour, salted cod battered to perfection, rice and meat fried until golden and eaten as soon as you can touch them. I can’t think of anything more soothing, satisfying and soulful than fritti.
A scrumptious, delectable surprise – which, coincidentally, is the meaning behind the word supplì: legend has it that in in the nineteenth century, as Napoleon’s troops arrived in Rome, they used the French term “surprise” to describe the wonder of the product, which contained a ‘surprise,’ the filling of stringy mozzarella, inside. From surprise, it morphed into the Roman variation “suprisa,”, then “supprisa,” “supprì” and finally supplì.
Not that they’re all made equals, of course. Far from it. Finding a good place for fritti can require effort – I now wonder whether the adult me would still find the crocchette from my childhood’s pizzeria so enticing – and asking locals what is the best place for arancini or panzerotti can lead to lengthy debates on the subject. Despite their straightforwardness, fritti are an art difficult to master. Which is why, when you do find a good spot, it’s like Christmas has come early.