Friday, August 14, 2009

Holy Rosary Rice Balls

Welcome to the hidden sanctum of Holy Rosary’s Italian Festival or as Katie and Betty like to call it, The Feast Scavi, after a little known tour of the catacombs beneath the Vatican.

Few are allowed in here. You need special permission and a guide, and you have to pass through a courtyard, walk down stairs, then pass through a chapel until you reach the rectory kitchen of Holy Rosary church on Sixth Street. The kitchen is off limits to unauthorized personnel during the hours of The Feast. It is in this secluded, guarded sanctuary where Katie and Bettie and a select group of women perform their annual, near-sacred ritual of rice ball production.

This year the balls are going to be renamed Holy Rosary Rice Balls, but few believe the name will replace the name generations of Italian Festival attendees have known them by for more than a quarter of a century—Aunt Mary’s Italian Rice Balls. Aunt Mary, who passed away three or four years ago, brought these Sicilian delicacies to the Feast. She’s the one who taught Katie and Bettie, who in turn are teaching a new cadre of apprentices.

The ingredients? Details are classified, but the essential foundation is white rice, Romano cheese and parsley, which are blended together by hand in a huge mixing bowl. Each ball is made individually. The proper amount—there are no measuring instruments used during the process—is held by the palms and a dollop of browned ground beef and peas are placed in the approximate center of the rice and cheese, which has a dough-like viscosity. Then Katie, kneading the substance like a sculptor, forms a sphere shape, slightly smaller than a billiard ball.

Betty then carefully rolls the ball in a pan of breadcrumbs until it is covered by a thin, uniform layer of the breadcrumbs.

“Everything is fresh, that’s the secret,” said Katie. “The ingredients are fresh, and each one is freshly made.”

Out on the streets, at The Feast, the balls are deep fried for about six minutes and served hot. They have six deep fryers bubbling constantly, each one frying four per batch. At the rice ball stand, the line was sometimes a dozen deep.

“Runners,” who have been authorized to enter the sanctioned domain, bring pans of rice balls from the clandestine kitchen to The Feast outside. Each rice ball is literally made by hand, between 400-500 balls are made each night. Betty thinks that average may be low. “We’ve made as many as 5,000.”

The actual recipe is a guarded secret, but fresh is the central rule. The women only start a couple of hours before the feast. The rice is cooked and the meat browned that day. The women continue making them each day into the evening, as demand dictates and demand was dictating a lot of rice balls this year. “We’re like cloistered nuns down here,” laughs Betty.

All the food is donated, as of course, is the time of team Katie/Betty. There are numerous vendors, all serving delicious fare at The Feast. But Aunt Mary’s Rice Balls—they are made by parishioners. The women are warm and friendly, cracking jokes and laughing up a storm. They are diligent—you are seeing an expertise passed down through generations being executed once again—but the atmosphere of joy is tangible and infectious.

I was only allowed to stay a short time, but there is one thing you can’t do in the kitchen that I’ve waited all year for, to eat one of Aunt Mary’s Rice Balls. They are simply marvelous—the layer of bread crumbs is crispy, and the inside an almost contradictory combination—moist and fluffy—meat, cheese, rice, spices. Each bite is savored. I can’t describe them without wanting one. I have had rice balls before, but they are not even close to these. Before I left the Holy Rosary kitchen, I had to know, what makes Aunt Mary’s Rice Balls so outstanding?

“Loving hands,” said Katie.

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