Polenta is a classic in every Northern Italian household worth its name; all through the cold season, scooping up the gravy from hearty meat stews with massive chunks of polenta is a cherished pleasure for many. Every family has its very own expert in the craft of making it; usually it’s the most patient and persistent relative, the one who doesn’t mind holding a wooden spoon for hours, and defying muscle aches to turn a mixture of corn flour and water into a solid mash. Years of watching my grandmother practice the same moves have persuaded me that I could easily whip up some polenta in my London kitchen, and yet I never did: I’d rather wait for my next visit to the homeland, than spend two hours attending to a pot. Why wait, though, when La Polenteria is just one tube ride away?
Deceptively basic (“what’s so special about mixing flour with water?”, I hear you ask), polenta comes in many forms and textures, all suited to a different purpose. Firm, chunky polenta, typical of the North-East of Italy, is a great side to wintry meat stews, or a replacement to the bread you’d use to scoop up gravies and sauces. The soft, runny polenta from the North-West makes for glorious main dishes: top it with meat or seasonal veg, and you’ll get a perfectly filling meal for the cold season. If you slice it and cook it on a grill pan, you can use it as a base for starters and canapes – and when it comes to dessert, bakes with polenta flour will please your pickiest gluten-free guests. La Polenteria celebrates this versatility, bringing one of Northern Italy’s traditional foods to the international crowd of London’s food lovers. Whether you’re familiar with it or taste it for the first time, you only need to take a look at the room around you to learn as much about it as I’ve discovered in a lifetime. Electric polenta makers and copper cauldrons act as decorations of sorts, pots of yellow flour lie on each table, and white writings on a black board show how corn kernels become the piping hot polenta on your plate. If my grandmother stepped inside, she’d no doubt be moved to tears.
The menu offers a set of main dishes based on the North-Western Italian tradition: plates filled with soft polenta, combined with meat, fish, vegetable or cheese toppings. To get a taste of everything, try the sharing dish called Polentata; for each two portions, you’ll be served a plate of polenta and three toppings of your choice. My parents and I went for wild boar stewed in red wine (succulent, tender meat in a rich tomato and rosemary sauce), mushrooms and truffle oil (simple yet effective, as good as homemade), and a cream of gorgonzola cheese (according to my parents, a tad too bland in taste, but decent nevertheless). I had to give the melted cheese a miss, as I’m really not a fan; however, our waiter kindly offered to bring a small sample of chestnut cream when he noticed that I’d set my eye on another topping that involved it. I’m glad he did, for the chestnut cream was a thing of beauty: sweet and smooth enough to feel like a pudding, and yet delicate enough to complement savoury polenta without smothering its taste.
The Polentata is great if you want to taste more than one topping; however, the portions are rather small, and might not do the trick if you’re looking to satisfy a big appetite. While it’s great to know that light meals are an option at La Polenteria, you should order one of the single-portion mains if you’re in need of something filling: both the polenta and toppings come in much more generous helpings than in the sharing dish. I will be back for those main courses; I’m still dreaming of the wild boar stew, and would love to give the other meat options a try, too. This raises a thorny question, though: how do I tell my grandma that I found a restaurant that serves good polenta in London, without inflicting a mortal wound to her Italian cook’s pride?
64 Old Compton Street
London, W1D 4UQ
(nearest tube station: Tottenham Court Road)
Open 8.30am – 11pm Monday – Thursday, 8.30am – midnight Friday, 12noon – midnight Saturday, 12noon – 11pm Sunday
+44 (0) 20 7434 3617
See the menu on Zomato