History, As Told Through a Bite of a Rice Croquette

On a recent trip to Italy, a story — about Roman rice croquettes called supplí — that was years and generations in the making, finally came full circle.
July 27, 2022

History, As Told Through a Bite of a Rice Croquette

When I bit into the crisp, swollen orb — the crunch of the fried exterior, the tang of tomato sauce cooked with soft risotto, flecks of moist ground beef, and gooey mozzarella hot as molten lava — a swirl of memories came rushing back.

First came the memory of that nearly same bite, at the same storefront in Rome, standing in nearly the exact same location, nearly four years ago.

It was October 2018 then, and I was traveling with a different partner, among a different group of tourists, riding on a different bike throughout the city of Rome.

And yet, we were guided by the same tour guide, Luca, a Rome local and bicyclist who runs a small bike shop and who loves introducing visitors of his city to local bites, local stories, local history.

Then, in a flash, a rush of different memories came back; distant memories, thousands of miles away — back home, in Rhode Island, where I was born and raised and still today reside — across the years; my entire life, really, since childhood. At family parties, birthdays, get-togethers, holiday cookouts, and need-no-reason-to-congregate-and-eat occasions, my grandmother, Dora, would almost always make her famous rice croquettes.

My cousins and siblings and I, as well as our parents and aunts and uncles, would swarm the tray of hot, fragrant, fried ovals of meat (ground beef, usually) and vegetable (olive and sometimes mushroom, I’m told), tossed in cooked rice and battered and crisped on a stovetop in olive oil.

“Grammy’s balls,” we would inappropriately call them — fully conscious, mind you, of the uncouth implication.

But rice croquettes like hers were an absolute fiend to make. They required a range of ingredients, yes, but also attention, perfect timing, and utmost care. Food like this was and is a labor of love, and, as Grammy has gotten a little older, the croquettes became less and less frequent at our family gatherings.

I do not blame her; none of us do.

There is something particularly cruel and tragic-seeming about toiling over food for hours — or, in my case, for days, as when I have made homemade butter croissants from scratch on a few occasions — to see them disappear into hungry mouths within about 14 seconds.

It’s like painting an entire work of art and then… seeing someone eat it.

So, as years passed, the legend of the rice croquettes grew.

My cousins and I would clamor for the croquettes; friends, neighbors, partners, and cousins’ kids would be ushered into the cult of Grammy’s balls. And Grammy, like an aloof rockstar, would remain secretive and nonchalant and not just give us the things, even if the demand on her supply was astronomical.

Then, once every year or so, a tray of croquettes — Grammy’s balls — would suddenly appear.

Like like limited edition sneakers, they flew off the shelf and into our faces.

Engorged on fat and flavor, we would huddle around the tray, pressing index fingers into little morsels and crumbs, scooping them into our mouths, until none remained.

“What is in this that makes them so good?” we would wonder.

And, “What is the origin of these magical balls? Where did they come from? How can we make them, ourselves?” we would ask.

Grammy, now nearly 91, told us that she’s been cooking them since before she can remember; that her mother taught her how to make them.

So imagine my surprise when, one October day in 2018, I’m on a bike tour of Rome, Italy, with a local guide named Luca, and I bite into a familiar-seeming fried thing, and the flavors and textures hit my tongue, and I suddenly realize,

Wait… what? THIS is Gram’s rice croquette!

The croquette in Rome was not a croquette, at all, but a supplí: a traditional Roman street food dating back at least a hundred-plus years.

It is considered a staple street food of Roman culture and, like many street foods, was about function (it is handheld), accessibility (it is made of cheap, readily available food to the working poor, like rice and discarded animal parts like chicken livers), and loading as many available calories as possible (deep fried) to help one work and function for the day ahead.

While nearly, though not perfectly, the same recipe as Gram’s croquettes, the supplí that I tasted while on my bike tour in Rome in 2018 unlocked a missing link in my own family’s history.

My cousins and I had been eating, and loving, and obsessing over, a food with a long and proud tradition — not just our own family’s, but an entire city’s; an entire culture’s worth of history.

The knowledge and tradition of the supplí had traveled over the Atlantic ocean with my Grammy’s parents when they immigrated from Italy to the United States in the early 20th century.

The supplí had its place at their immigrant family’s table. And then, through Grammy, the supplí continued to be shared at table after table throughout Rhode Island — even if its name and historical significance were temporarily lost.

But now, thanks to a chance encounter in Rome on an October day, their name has been restored.

“Gram’s balls” are supplí. Their roots are in Italy. Other people know them, too. They have a history. They’ve given many people, across generations, a lifeline — to work, to survive, and to honor and celebrate their roots.

It has given me much pride, fulfillment, and satisfaction over the last four years to connect the disparate and chance dots between our family’s love of this food item and a historically-significant street food in Rome. It made me feel like an explorer, like Indiana Jones, like both a student of history and an active participant in its writing.

Generations removed, thousands of miles away, one bite linked family, tradition, history, and legacy into one.

I wish everybody could have that same experience.

When I returned to Rome in June 2022, I knew that I had to relive that moment.

My partner, her family, and I enlisted Luca to show us around town by bike.* 

(*You can too if you’re ever in Rome!  Here’s Luca’s tour listing on Airbnb Experiences. It is one of the more fun ways to explore a city, I think!). 

And there, at one of the last stops on our tour, I stood, smiled, and bit.

The same, sudden rush that I felt when I first recognized, in a mouthful of amazing flavor, the impossible odds of our interconnections across time, space, and borders.

A family tree, rediscovered in street food.

History, found in a rice croquette.

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