By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Jul 17, 2017 at 1:01 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

We’re less than a week away from the 40th annual Festa Italiana (July 21-23), an ethnic festival where food is one of the star attractions.

Among the many choices – which range from pizza and pasta to cannoli – one of the most popular is arancine (fried rice balls). In fact, vendors at Festa sell an average of 7,000 rice balls each year during the three-day festival.

Arancine is an Italian word that roughly translates to "little orange." Risotto serves as a base for a variety of fillings, from ragu and mozzarella cheese to spinach and ricotta, mushrooms, pistachios or eggplant. The filled rice ball is then coated with bread crumbs and deep-fried, creating a wealth of flavors and textures from creamy to crisp.

Although risotto finds origins in Northern Italy, arancine are popular in the south. In fact, it’s common to find street vendors in Southern Italy who sell freshly fried arancine from carts. In fact, during the festival of Saint Lucia on Dec. 13, the city of Palermo is reft with stands, carts and kiosks from which the aroma of freshly made arancine is unmistakable.

Dean Cannestra, Italian Community Center president, chair of Festa Italiana and owner of Divino Wine & Dine is a second generation Sicilian whose grandparents came to America after the turn of the century.

Like many Sicilians who came to Milwaukee, they lived on the East Side, just off of Brady Street.

"We’d always gather on weekends as a family," Cannestra recalls. "And we’d have dinner together. My grandmother, Jenny Puccio, was a fantastic cook. And it was always a treat when she’d make her arancine during the holidays."

Cannestra has carried on the family tradition, making arancine at his restaurant. And although potential fillings are many, he says he’s still a sucker for Divino’s traditional filling of beef, tomato sauce and peas.

"I love those tender tiny peas inside," he says. "It’s very unique and different. Spinach and ricotta is also delicious, but I love the meat and peas."

Want a free ticket to Festa?

Patronize one of the following participating Festa food vendors at their brick and mortar locations on Tuesday, July 18 and you’ll be eligible to receive one free ticket to the festival.

Beyond food, the 40th anniversary of Festa Italiana will feature a plethora of great Italian and classic entertainment. This year’s musical headliners will include hometown favorite, BoDeans, 90’s alternative band, Gin Blossoms, "The Voice" 2012 finalist, Nicholas David, and "America’s Got Talent" Season 11 finalist, Sal Valentinetti. Direct from Italy, the Flag-Throwers from Florence will also be returning to Festa 2017 with a colorful show that brings history to life.

Returning again this year is one of Festa’s most popular features – the Italian Idol competition, an amateur singing contest featuring all genres of music. Other popular Italian acts to look forward to include Russo Brothers, Ray Massa’s EuroRhythms, The Sicilian Tenors, Anna Calemme, Tony Spavone and The Florentine Opera. For more information, visit festaitaliana.com

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.