When we think of Neapolitan cooking—and southern Italian cooking in general—we think of pasta and pizza. So it may come as a surprise that one of the most emblematic dishes of Neapolitan cooking is actually a rice timbale, the sartù di riso. The word sartù, the story goes, is an Italianized version of the French phrase sur tout, which means ‘above all’—a reference to the rice that covers the rich meat and vegetable filling of this extraordinary timbale.
And therein lies a tale. You see, back in the day Naples was the capital of southern Italy—a separate country known as the ‘Kingdom of the Two Sicilies‘ and ruled by French Bourbons. The Bourbon nobility liked to live and eat high on the hog, and their local cooks, known as the Monzù—another Italianization, this time of the word Monsieur—went out of their way to please their noble masters with elaborate French-inspired dishes using local ingredients; their vast repertoire makes up a whole sub-cuisine, la cucina dei Monzù. It was perhaps the first example of a consciously contrived fusion cuisine. And it explains, at least in part, why Neapolitan cuisine is so rich in pasticci and timbali and other fancy dishes.
The sartù is arguably the best known of the traditional Monzù dishes. There are several kinds of sartù, but they mainly fall within two categories: those in rosso (‘red’, ie made with tomato sauce) and those in bianco (‘white’, without). The white version is the original, or so they say, but it is the red version that is the more popular today. Today’s post is about the version called sartù di riso al ragù. The rice is flavored with a rich ragù della domenica or Sunday Sauce; the stuffing is made with the sausages that went into the ragù and polpettine, those same tiny meatballs that go into lasagna, mixed with peas and mushrooms—the French touch! It’s a kind of fancy, Frenchified lasagna di Carnevale.
Like lasagna, the sartù is not an everyday dish—it involves several steps and take some considerable time and effort. Best to plan ahead. You can make the ragù, for example, the day before, the polpettine and rice the morning of, and then put everything together when you feel like it. In fact, the whole thing can be assembled ahead of time, then refrigerated until you want to cook it.
Makes enough for 4-6 people
For the ragú:
- One large onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 cloves of garlic
- 3-4 large sausages (mild ‘Italian’ type)
- Olive oil (or, better, lard)
- Salt and pepper
- Red wine
- 2 large cans of tomatoes (800g/28 oz.) passed through a food mill, or the equivalent of crushed or puréed tomatoes
- A sprig or two of fresh parsley
For the rice:
- 500g (1 lb.) of rice for risotto (see Notes)
- A ladleful (or two) of the ragù above, mixed with enough additional water to make one liter/one quart of liquid
- 3 eggs
- 100g (3-1/2 oz.) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
For the polpettine (little meatballs):
- 250g (1/2 lb.) of chopped beef, pork and/or veal (see Notes)
- 50g (1-1/4 oz.) of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 100g (3-1/2 oz.) of breadcrumbs or day-old bread, trimmed and soaked (see Notes)
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Olive oil for frying (or another vegetable oil)
For the rest of the stuffing:
- One ball of fiordilatte, mozzarella cheese made with cow’s milk (see Notes), sliced or cubed
- 25g (1 oz.) of dried mushrooms (preferably porcini) soaked in water until soft
- 200 g (7 oz.) of frozen peas (or a small can)
For the mold:
- Butter or lard
Step 1: Start by making the ragù, using the ingredients listed above and following the method for Angelina’s Sunday Sauce.
Step 2: Precook the rice: Mix the ragù and water together, season generously with salt. (Taste the liquid to make sure it is quite savory.) Put the rice and the liquid together in a saucepan, bring to a boil. Stir once, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and let cook for 15 minutes, stirring only once about halfway through. The liquid should be fully absorbed and the rice should still be slightly underdone, rather chalky to the tooth.
Then transfer the rice to a large mixing bowl and let it cool entirely, then add the remaining eggs, cheese and parsley. Taste and adjust for seasoning—the rice should be very flavorful.
(NB: While the rice is simmering, you can let your dried mushrooms soak.)
Step 3: Make the polpettine: Mix all of the ingredients listed above together in a large bowl. Form them into the smallest meatballs you can manage, about the size of hazelnut, rolling them between your palms. Fry your little meatballs in abundant olive oil until they are nicely browned on all sides. Make sure that you leave lots of room in the pan for them to fry properly; you will probably need to fry them in batches. NB: Since they’re so small, they will cook in only a few minutes. Drain them on paper towels.
Step 4: Set up your mis en place: Fish out a few of the sausages from the ragù and slice them up. Slice the mozzarella and get your peas. You should now have everything ready to go: your rice, your soaked mushrooms, the little meatballs, the frozen peas, your sliced mozzarella. Lay them out on your work space so you’re ready to put everything together.
Step 5: Prepare the stuffing: Mix together the sausages, meatballs, peas and mushrooms. Nap them with a ladleful of ragù and mix so they are well coated. Taste and adjust for seasoning; the stuffing should be rich and savory.
Step 6: Assemble the sartù: Line a mold of your choice very generously with butter (or, if you really want to be authentic, lard) then breadcrumbs. (I like to use a Charlotte mold, but there are other possibilities; see Notes below.) Make sure to line the mold very well. This step is really important to avoid the rice sticking to your mold. And that would be a real shame after all the effort you’re putting in…
Take two thirds of the rice mixture and line the bottom and sides, leaving a large well in the middle for the stuffing. Make sure the rice makes a rather thick ‘wall’ around the sides, enough to hold up the finished timbale. Add the stuffing into the well, starting with a layer of mozzarella, then the stuffing ingredients, proceeding in layers until you’re almost (but not quite) up to the top of the mold, like so:
Then add the rest of the rice and flatten it out so it is flush with the top of the mold. Sprinkle with some more breadcrumbs and dot with some more butter (or lard).
Step 7: Bake the sartù in a moderate oven (180C/350F) for a good 30-45 minutes, depending on the shape and size of the mold, until the top is golden brown. (If using a ring mold or individual molds, it will be done in more like 20-30 minutes.)
Step 8: Rest: Remove the sartù from the oven and let it rest for a good 10-15 minutes. (It can wait up to 30 minutes if you like and some recipes tell you to do so. The longer the wait, the more solid the sartù will be.) Again, this step is critical to keep the sartù in shape.
Step 9: Unmold the sartù by placing a large plate over the top of the mold, then, using oven mitts or towels so you don’t burn yourself, holding and flipping both mold and plate over together. Then, with the mold upside down on the plate, give the bottom (now the ‘top’) of the mold a good wack with a heavy knife or mallet or something to loosen it from the mold. Gently lift the mold up, just a smidgen, shaking it a bit until you feel the sartù come loose from the mold and drop onto the plate.
Step 10: Serve the sartù whole, cutting it at table like a cake for your dinner guests, along with a sauce boat of the remaining ragù and some freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese for those who want some.
The best rice for this dish is one of the varieties that are suited for making risotto: arborio, Vialone nano or Carnaroli. Given the amounts needed, I usually use the (relatively!) inexpensive arborio for making a sartù. In a pinch, any short grained rice will do; you need a ‘starchy’ variety that will hold together when the sartù is unmolded. If you want to use easier to find long grain rice, it may work if you add some extra egg for binding. (No guarantees, however, as I haven’t tested this out!)
The chopped meat can be beef, or a mixture of beef and pork, or a mixture of beef, pork and veal, or you prefer. Just make sure it’s not too lean, or else your meatballs will be a bit dry.
The mozzarella should be fresh, if possible, the kind you buy in its water. But you needn’t go to the expense of using a true mozzarella di bufala, made from the milk of the water buffalo, for a dish like this, where the mozzarella gets mixed up with all sort of savory ingredients. A simple and much less expensive fiordilatte, or mozzarella made with cow’s milk (which, in any event, is what you will more likely find here in the States) will do fine. And, in a pinch, you can even use the ‘dry’ kind of mozzarella that comes wrapped in plastic wrap. If so, I would cube the mozzarella rather than slice it, as it tends to be a bit tough. If using fresh mozzarella, let it drain well before using so it doesn’t turn the stuffing soggy.
Depending on the size of your mold, you may well wind up with extra rice, ragù or stuffing, but that’s fine. Better too much than too little, so the measurements given above are generous. Leftover ragù has a million uses; it can be frozen and used for lasagna on some future Sunday, or just on some spaghetti anytime you feel like it. Leftover stuffing is wonderful reheated on its own, perhaps with a bit of leftover ragù if you have it, or tomato if you don’t, as a kind of stew, or as a condimento for pasta. Either the stuffing and/or the rice can be used to make a nice frittata as well. If you have all three leftover, you can make mini sartù, or sartuncini, for another meal.
Speaking of molds, I like to use a medium-sized Charlotte mold for making sartù, as pictured above. It makes for an impressive, ‘dramatic’ presentation at table, especially as you slice it and the rich stuffing comes pouring out… But many people these days use a ring mold, which is quicker to cook and easier to slice. You can even use very small molds for elegant individual portions. The only point is to make sure you line your mold very well with butter and breadcrumbs and then let the sartù rest before you attempt to unmold it; otherwise, you risk the sartù sticking to the mold, which won’t be very pretty (but still delicious). To get around this, some cooks make sartù as a kind of casserole, to be spooned out of a baking dish rather than unmolded, which is undoubtedly less nerve-racking but a lot less fun.
As mentioned, there are several types of sartù. In her classic cookbook La cucina napoletana, Jeanne Caròla Francesconi presents fives different versions, two in bianco, two in rosso and one made with fish rather than meat. the sartù di riso in bianco is said to be the original version. There is also another version in rosso, made with a simple tomato sauce rather than ragù, which makes the dish (slightly) less time-consuming to make and, of course, a bit lighter. It’s probably more in line with today’s tastes, but personally I like this ragù version the best of all. Francesconi, by the way, suggests letting the stuffing ingredients (other than the mozzarella) gently sauté in a soffritto of lard, onion and prosciutto, then adding some ragù and simmering for about 10 minutes. This extra step no doubt adds another layer of flavor.
Francesconi calls for an even more elaborate stuffing, adding chicken livers and, like some lasagna, wedges of hard boiled eggs, to the ingredients listed in this recipe. In fact, as you can well imagine, the recipe lends itself to all sorts of variations, especially in the stuffing. You can add more or less meatballs or stuffing or peas or mushrooms as suits your taste. I’ve seen recipes for cooked ham in the stuffing. And so on ad infinitum. Some people like to add some peas and/or mushrooms to the rice as well. Sartù is a dish that lets you play and individualize according to your taste. But—mi raccommando!—do try the classic version first.