One of the many attractions of the eternal city is its hearty local food. In this article we introduce you to the supplì: a typical Roman street food. It is a fried rice ball with a heart of melted mozzarella. Before assembling it, the rice is slowly cooked in tomato sauce or ragù (Bolognese sauce) for a richer taste.
You can find it in any true Roman pizzeria: as a side food for a wood-fired oven pizza, Roman families like to have a fried supplì. However, outside the borders of Lazio, the cousin of the supplì, the arancino or arancina, is more popular.
The etymology of the word supplì
The etymology of this word is closely connected to the history of Rome and the deliciousness of the dish. Regarding the part related to the way the dish presents itself, supplì comes from the French surprise: the “surprise” is the melted mozzarella in the middle. The following section about the history of supplì will explain some theories about the French etymology.
From the linguistic perspective, the name has evolved in its form, from surprise through soplis and, finally, to the current supplì, but also in its gender. The original name was feminine, as the French word from which it comes, while these days it is il supplì and not la supplì.
For its mozzarella heart, some claim that the complete name of this dish is supplì al telefono (telephone-style). This refers to the fact that a well-made supplì should present a (telephone) line of melted mozzarella when you break it in two parts while still warm.
The history of the supplì
One of the hypotheses on the origin of the supplì is that it was created during the occupation of Rome by the French army of Napoleon, between 1809 and 1814. It is likely that the French gave to the dish the name surprise after having bitten into its mozzarella heart.
As for the conception of the dish, the supplì might have been brought to Lazio by the same French troops which had already been in Sicily and Naples. The Sicilians are likely to be the creators of this new way of eating rice, as this cereal first reached Italy in their region, due to the long history of exchanges with the Arab world. Then, the Sicilian arancina reached Naples, whose version of the dish is called pall ‘e ris (literally “ball of rice”). The following stop on the itinerary of this rice ball seems to have been Rome.
The first written testimony of the word “supplì” is in a menu of a Roman restaurant in Via dei Condotti back in the second half of the 19th century, when Melville and Gogol might have tasted it, too. Just a century later, the supplì was warming the ink-stained hands of the famous writer James Joyce, who spent some time in Rome at that time.
On your next trip to Italy, you should consider stopping by Rome to make a feast of supplì. Select the best pizzeria of the area and enjoy!
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RomaToday. 2021. La storia del supplì. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.romatoday.it/speciale/a-roma-ci-piace/suppli/la-storia-del-suppli.html. [Accessed 18 June 2021].
The Roman Post. 2021. La storia del supplì. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.theromanpost.com/2017/07/la-storia-del-suppli/. [Accessed 18 June 2021].
Written by Maria Bruno, Schuman Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit. She holds a master’s degree in Translation and a bachelor’s degree in Italian Language and Literature. She is trained in websites and social media management, content writing and SEO. Currently, she is studying for her Diplôme Universitaire in Terminology at the University of Savoie-Mont Blanc.