You're likely to find arancini — fried risotto balls filled with cheeses, vegetables or meats — on many high-end Italian restaurant menus. But that's not how Chris Dall'au wants you to eat them.
"That's not really what was intended," he says. "It's really blue-collar food meant to be sold on the street corner and eaten on the go. We're very happy to bring that back."
Dall'au's year-old food truck, Have A Ball, both reverts arancini balls to their centuries-old status as casual snacks sold from Sicilian street carts and simultaneously updates them for 21st-century palates. Using rice as his canvas, he's created a menu of diverse and creative flavor combinations borrowing from several cultures' cuisines.
"The great thing about rice is that you can do anything with it," he says.
Dall'au was a theater major at Syracuse University and moved to New York City after graduation, hoping to pursue his craft.
"I did some shows, had some fun, but I knew I wanted to get married and start a family. I wanted something consistent," he says.
One night, eating rice balls with his now-wife, he half-jokingly said they ought to open a restaurant with that one item. During the next Super Bowl, he experimented with a rice ball filled with cheddar cheese and topped with chili.
"And that's when I kind of realized almost anything could go with this because it's rice. Almost every culture has a rice dish."
In 2012, he put his plan into motion, launching Have a Ball as a catering company and selling wholesale rice balls to a few local pizzerias. When he got married, he moved to Fairfield and brought the business with him as a food truck.
"It's been fantastic. We looked at opening a brick-and-mortar at one point, but we wanted to get back to that street-food quality."
During lunch or late-night truck stops in Stamford, or at such Connecticut breweries as Stratford's Two Roads or Branford's Stony Creek, Have A Ball offers four or five varieties of its rice balls. The "original Italian," a good entry point for beginners, is designed "just like grandma made it," with about 2 1/2 ounces of risotto stuffed with mozzarella, pecorino and Parmesan cheeses. It's rolled in bread crumbs, fried for two to three minutes and then topped with a meat sauce made with veal, beef and pork based on Dall'au's own family recipe.
Other versions include a popular barbecue chicken ball, stuffed with sharp cheddar and topped with pulled meat and diced jalapeno; the Pink Lady, with three cheeses and a vegetarian vodka sauce; a Thai ball with coconut jasmine rice, mixed veggie stir fry and curry sauce; and a burrito ball, with Spanish rice, cheddar cheese and grilled chicken topped with mole sauce, shredded cheddar and salsa verde. Dessert balls, a sphere of rice pudding filled with Nutella, fried and rolled in cinnamon and sugar with whipped cream topping, are among the best-sellers.
In the fall, Have A Ball will often make its chili-cheese balls, first inspired by Dall'au's Super Bowl party, and a Pilgrim ball, with wild rice and roast turkey, gravy and cranberry jalapeno chutney. He's tweaking his recipes for a "hangover ball" with soft-boiled egg and buttery white rice with bacon, lettuce and tomato, and a health-conscious brown rice ball served atop chicken and vegetable soup.
Customers often suggest new flavors, like a s'mores dessert ball that's also in the works.
"The best part is getting to make up new flavors all the time," Dall'au says. "I'm a pretty eclectic eater. And if I get into the mood for something, I have to have that; if I can't find it, I have to make it." He's also experimented with a "hibachi ball" (stir-fried vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, fried rice) and a tofu tikka masala recipe.
"We really do have unlimited options," he says. "That's what I really love, just being able to bring this food to the customers. To bring this one-of-a-kind flavor to people, while also honoring the age-old tradition of this food is really, really exciting. It's a lot of fun, and I really love doing it every day."
Look for a profile of a new food truck each week through summer in Thursday's CTNow section, and follow the series, with photos and video, at ctnow.com/foodtrucks.