La Polentata: a Cornmeal Communion

March 18, 2016 / Food & Wine
Assisi, Umbria

– Local knowledge such as this is the heart and fun of Anne’s U.S. Cooking and Lecture Tour “Feast of Umbrian Rural Cuisine” home events. Just a few evenings left in the MD, DC, and VA areas… not to be missed! And join Anne’s “Inside” Umbria tour (for just 12) in May!


The sharing of savory foods is Italy’s nonpareil social link. The breaking of bread together denotes communion or fellowship in both Judaic and Christian tradition and in Italian tradition, the most communal food is certainly la polentata, when cornmeal polenta is spread out on a wooden board, lo spianatoio (literally “the spreader”) down the center of a long table, diners on both sides scooping up the polenta with big spoons, sharing cornmeal goodness and conversation.

polenta, communal meal-sm

A meal of just polenta, la polentata – best savored with a robust red wine – reminds today’s Italians of those bygone days of la miseria (best translated as “rural poverty”) when cornmeal cooked in boiling water – and maybe served with meat sauce (a treat) – filled the stomachs of many a farm family.

serenella smiles and stirs-sm
polenta in pot-sm

Italian gastronomical traditions mirror the history of Italy and polenta is no exception: polenta is as old as Italy. The first ingredients were indigenous: ground barley, farro (spelt), beans, and peas with the Etruscans, Greeks and Saracens bringing here their dishes made from these ground legumes and grains. The Romans called such dishes “puls” and later “pulentum”. “Pulentum” nourished Roman soldiers as they set out to conquer the known world. Cornmeal arrived from the New World on the ships of Cristoforo Colombo and took over rapidly as the star ingredient of polenta.

rosella spreads out polenta on spianatoio-sm
Serenella spreads the sauce, Rita sprinkles pecorino-sm

Caloric and filling, polenta is a winter dish, nowadays in vogue in gourmet restaurants (even in the States) – to the astonishment of our rural friends who once hoped they’d never see another spoonful of cornmeal! The best place to enjoy a true polentata is at Ristorante Da Giovannino in the Assisi countryside, where Giovannino’s daughter-in-law, Serenella, takes turns stirring the huge pot of polenta with her mother Rosella. When ready, they spread the steamy polenta out on the spianatoio and sprinkle pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) on top. La miseria is long gone: ladlefuls of a rich meat sauce loaded with local veal, ground pork, sausages, ribs, and mushrooms are spooned on top of the polenta. Parmigiano adds the finishing touch before Serenella’s son Fabio proudly carries the long spiantoio to hungry guests at the long dining room table.

serenella adds rich meat sauce-sm
rosella, serenella add cheese, sauce-sm
fabio with spianatoio-sm

Each one ready to join in this “cornmeal communion”: a warm – and savory – joining-together on a cold winter’s night.

Here comes the polenta! Lower your heads-sm

Salute! to a job well-done-sm

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See www.annesitaly.com for more on her Umbria tours. Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

22 Responses to “La Polentata: a Cornmeal Communion”

  1. Polenta is very trendy here in the states, although since I can remember Polenta has always been a family favorite served frequently during the winter months. Wonderful story and pictures, Grazie!

    Reply
  2. Pat Carney Ceccarelli
    Pat Carney Ceccarelli

    The most memorable polenta I have had was with you GB with Yo pouring out the polenta on the big board! What a happening! Love to Yo!

    Reply
  3. Carolyn Bellanti

    We love making polenta for family and friends here in the states, but my favorite polenta experience of all time was to share polenta served like this (polentata is a new term for an old experience) at the summer home of dear friends at Riva di Solto at Lago d’iseo. It was served topped with stracotto di asina, which had been marinated in fine wine overnight and cooked to perfection for us and new friends who were all part of a wine lovers’ group. We didn’t know enough about wine to fully appreciate the wine of the evening, but the main course was indimenticabile!

    Reply
  4. Antoinette Shapiama

    Polenta was always part of our family’s diet. It was a staple to be eaten with pretty much anything — “polenta e pulastro”, polenta e baccalà”, ” polenta e osei” (in the dialect of Veneto). When I was dating my Peruvian husband, I was surprised to learn that his mother cooked polenta for his family as well when they were growing up in Lima. So I made it for him and that more or less sealed the deal!

    Reply
  5. Sandra Potter

    Anne, my mouth is watering. What a unique way to share a meal. Grazie

    Reply
  6. Mary Lynne Simpson

    I really enjoy all of your Umbrian posts but this one, in addition to making me think it’s been a while since I’ve had polenta!) left me wondering if a solo traveller to Italy could enjoy la polentata with a group of travelers or if they are only served to large family/friend or tour groups? This would be such fun! I know here in America in Amish country, I’ve been served family style which means they seat you at large tables with people you don’t know and serve everything in big bowls and platters. By the end of the meal, you’ve become “friends” for at least that meal. Would love an experience like that in Italy.

    Reply
  7. See OLIVE TREES AND HONEY by Gil Marks for the Jewish version, mamaliga (“food of gold”)

    Reply
  8. Susan paitler

    Ann, I know how to Mae polenta with a good mushroom gravy. I would like t ok have t g e red sauce recipe and how to prepare tge meats

    Reply
  9. Gian Banchero

    Si’, yes, si’, yes, si’!!!!!! As a child in the 40s and 50s the Piemontese side of the family ate polenta as such from a large aged wooden plank which I still have, also my Sicilian mother served pasta as such for a spaghettata. Alas as the anziani passed the tradition was discarded except at my home where I’ve continued the tradition with the Little Ones in the family. There is a great pleasure and wonderful intimacy eating as such, it’s also a must to have real rustic Italian torn bread and a good somewhat rough home-made wine. Recently at an Italian restaurant the menu stated $22.00 for a plate of polenta… Macche’!!!!!! One day I’d like to see an article about the spaghettata dinners that neighbors used to hold, this is when several families decided to dine together, each family was to bring about two cups of their favorite sauce which was mixed into a communal pot and served over a mound of spaghetti. Of course the gravy never tasted the same twice… I’m naturally upset with 3rd generation Italian-Americans because of their will not to continue the old traditions, interestingly I’ve found they do take up a tradition when in upscale culinary magazines and TV programs “discover” the methods and traditions which are then considered very hip. One day I’d really love to see an article about the old Tuscano tradition (which my family used to enjoy) of roasting together on one oven sheet a leg of lamb, a pork roast, a beef roast and a chicken together, along with potatoes, the only seasoning being salt and chopped garlic and rosemary inserted into slits in all the meats, the exchange of flavors between the meats were phenomenal, again, phenomenal!!!!… One day I would also like to see an article about drinking wine at the festive table, how it’s paced, considered A FOOD, not an almost effete beverage served in stem glasses; wine was meant to lighten the spirit (to give a good buzz= (‘<_')o SI'!!), to diminish by the end of the meal only to momentarily return with sweetened or not strong black coffee and a good glug of grappa… I'm amazed at Italian-American diners that now share only one bottle of wine for six people(!!!). In the old days Nonno had a gallon of home-made vino at his feet (which was emptied by the end of the meal), we drank from small four-ounce glasses… My young nephew just bought a farm here in California ("California, Italia in America", as the old timers used to say.), the lad and his wife are to plant a vineyard, I've made him promise to at least once make the old style zinfandel (zinfindela) which was so strong that it would remove varnish off a table. Grazie Anne per l'articolo!!!!

    Reply
  10. Ginny Siggia

    What a wonderful idea! When I bought polenta at the grocery store I didn’t really know what to do with it but thought it was a good thing to have on hand. I disappointed it, utterly. Now I can try it again, with a good recipe in hand.

    Reply
  11. Sarah Walters

    Eating leftover corned beef and cabbage tonight but dreaming of a lusty red wine and a plate of polentata!!!!

    Reply
  12. Laura Maione

    I’m with you, Pat. Polenta on that massive board with the whole Bernardini clan and various other friends. The big vat of meat sauce cooking all day and poured on top. Just the memory instantly transports me back 20 years! Mmmmmmm. :)

    Reply
  13. Marie Giacalone

    I am so inspired by these photos. I have cooked polenta many times, and have heard of this tradition- using a communal board- but now I GET IT! I am going to forward this to my amici from my Slow Food Convivium. I see Polentata in our future!

    Reply
  14. Mary Petruccello

    This is exactly the way we grew up eating polenta. The biggest excitement for us as childten (and even now as adults) is to see what map the remainder of polenta resembled. If adjustments had to be made, say fix the heel on italy, the person sitting nearest to it had to eat the polenta to get the correct feature. We usually served it with a sauce made with sausage. It and savoy cabbage sauteed with garlic and oil were mounded at different points on the polenta, to be shared by all. Wonderful memories and still wonderful moments as we carry on the tradition, boards and all.

    Reply
  15. These articles make me hungry, and remind me of enjoying polenta, plain, simple and tasty. I’m reminded also of my grandfather’s gallon of homemade wine, the best, and the little glasses that he delighted in pouring for the grandchildren to taste. Every meal brought out that gallon jug of wine from his basement.

    Reply
  16. janice Peters

    Reading this recalls wonderful memories of my dear Roman Nonna who taught me how to make this specialty. It is always fun to share! Mille Grazie, JP

    Reply
  17. Nancy Caporaso

    What a wonderful way to spend time with friends – fabulous company, fabulous food and fabulous wine! Thanks for posting the history of this Italian gem

    Reply
  18. Anna Retsker

    A very interesting story and nice tradition to get together and enjoy this meal. Never knew it could be cooked that way. Next time I get to Umbria I’ll stop by this ristorante! Thank you, Anne!

    Reply
  19. Looking forward to seeing Annie in Italy. We will definitely try the polenta at Giovannini’s!!

    Reply
  20. Giovonne

    Dear Anne,
    This post was such a treat to read and the pictures are also fantastic. My father’s family is from Naples and I have heard many stories about polenta served and enjoyed in this manner. I make my own version of polenta that I learned many years ago from Anna Teresa Callen. I took a cooking class at what was then known as Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. Anna Teresa demonstrated some recipes from her fabulous book, Pizzas, Quiches and Savory Pies and her unusual and amazing polenta dish has long been a family favorite!

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Jody

Click here to cancel reply.