It’s odd. There doesn’t appear to be *one* right way to cook polenta. How can there, if every Italian you meet will tell you that the best polenta is their polenta, and that the polenta you’re both eating with them is OK, but (assuming it’s not theirs) “non è buono come il bio”? Come on Italy, can there really be so many secret methods for such a simple looking thing?
The last Italian I spoke to about this was a 6 foot 4 inch tall welder from the mountains to the north of Bergamo. His hands are the size of spades, his hair is wispy but shoulder length, his face is marked by molten metal sparks, he ski tours without regard for avalanche … but he’s more emotional than a recent divorcee watching a rom com and has strong views on polenta. Stale bread in the water for one hour before adding the coarse stuff is the key, apparently.
A problem with the general position that “no one’s polenta is as good as mine“, is that it’s really very difficult to know what a good plop or puddle of this cornmeal (ground maize) should taste like. It doesn’t have a great reputation in the UK, with many believing it to be bland gloop. Some say the quick cook stuff is the problem. But I’ve never seen polenta marked as anything other than fine or course, so I’ve no idea if I’m cooking with quality or not. What I do cook seems good, I think. But I ram a shed load of butter and cheese into it, and everything tastes good with butter and cheese.
Polenta was served with everything on that recent trip to the Italian mountains – with cotechino, ragu, mixed pork kebabs, cured meats, cheeses, even triple carbing it alongside pasta and chips. So it was strange that I craved more on my return to London.
As I chanced upon the relatively new La Polenteria on Old Compton Street, it struck me as odd that a simple restaurant focusing on such a base product could afford the premiums and rent that this part of town now demands. I know enough of Italian business not to dig too deep, though.
The interior is unfussy, clean lined, sleek but cozy. On one wall there’s a description of the polenta milling and cooking process. “IT’S GLUTEN FREE”, the wall keeps shouting. There’s a lengthy schpiel about copper pots and wooden sticks and cloths and being cut with wire … yet the plate of polenta I’m presented with is slick and glossy and soon stiff, wobbly and even glossier. Is this the quick cook stuff? It’s definitely not been scooped up in muslin and cut by anything.
Hey ho. The taste is fine. In a need more salt, pepper and wouldn’t it be nice if there was shed loads of butter and cheese in this kind of way. You can choose from a bunch of toppings: caponata, gorganzola and nuts, burrata and fresh tomatoes, Tuscan sausage and borlotti beans, wild boar and so on. I had mixed mushrooms – which was, again, fine. Save that it was scorching hot, to the point that there’s a possibility it’s cooked via a ‘pop’ and a ‘ping’. I’d love to be wrong. Other toppings on plates around me looked good.
There are sandwhiches (presumably polenta, cooled, hardened and grilled instead of bread?), salads (with polenta), and polenta based cakes and snacks (which looked decent). I had a silly little canapé to start, mostly because I didn’t believe, given there’d actually been a decision to put it on the menu, that gorgonzola and raspberry jam on firm polenta would be as bad as it sounded. Should’ve gifted the £1 towards Italian economic recovery instead.
A restaurant concept based around polenta is pretty niche. If you stand outside for five minutes, the split of “oooh, that’s the polenta place” and “ha, what’s the point?” is about fifty fifty.
I followed lunch with a gelato from nearby Gelupo, which was a reminder that somewhere focusing on just one Italian staple can be outstanding. So it’s sad that La Polenteria doesn’t provide a definitive example of good polenta. But, for some reason, I excuse it for not nailing the key component. It’ll do for a quick and inexpensive meal on the way to something else.
On that note, my current favourite lunch option is La Tua pasta in Borough Market.
Fresh pasta is the original and best quick cook meal. During these times of rapid grab and go from high street chains and street food stalls, it’s not clear to me why more places don’t specialise in it. It’s possible that in a rush to ‘innovate’ by putting every cuisine under the sun in a wrap, or a taco, or through a Bradley smoker, that we’ve forgotten how awesome and complete a pasta meal is.
Step forward La Tua. Really, really, really super good pasta and gnocchi. Fresh, firm, yolk rich and served from a little unit on Rochester Walk, the northern most path into the market. They used to have just a temporary table in the fast food bit, but they’ve had a permanent stand since October last year.
There are a few regular gnocchi and tortellini; for example pumpkin and a fantastic, deep meaty wild boar one. But they also offer more jazzy specials too – crab or beetroot tortellini, Italian sausage ravioli, squid ink and so on. Top your choice with olive oil and parmesan or tomato sauce for free, ragu or pesto costs a pound more. It’s about £6 for a good helping.
I understand you can buy La Tua’s pasta to cook yourself from Broadway Market, Barnes Market and from a number of delis and grocers, such as De Beauvoir Deli and Andreas on Chelsea Green.
La Polenteria in 3 words
Polenta with that?
Under a tenner.
lapolenteria.com – 64 Old Compton Street, W1d 4UQ – 020 7434 3617
La Tua Pasta in 3 words
Proper pasta. Nourishing.
Generally £4.50-6. Some specials up to £8.
latuapasta.com – Rochester Walk, Borough Market, SE1 9AF