La Polentata: Cornmeal Communion
Breaking of bread together denotes communion, sharing, in Judaic and Christian traditions. In Italian tradition, the most communal food is certainly polenta, when 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. 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 “poverty”) when cornmeal cooked in boiling water – and maybe served with meat sauce (a treat) – filled the stomachs of many a farm family.
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 and the Etruscans, Greeks and Saracens brought their own versions of 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.
Caloric and filling, polenta is a winter dish. Nowadays, in vogue in gourmet restaurants (even in the States), it’s hard to image that once poor farmers here hoped they’d never see another spoonful of polenta! The best place to enjoy a true polentata is at Ristorante Da Giovannino in the Assisi countryside, where 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. Ladlefuls of a rich meat sauce (la miseria long gone!) – made with local veal, ground pork, sausages, ribs, and mushrooms – follows. Parmigiano adds the finishing touch before Serenella’s son Fabio proudly carries the long spiantoio to hungry guests at the long dining room table. Spoons in hand, students are ready to share this cornmeal communion!
” I really enjoyed the sense of community of the meal, which was apparent in the presentation of the polenta as well as the stories we heard ……… The fact that it is run by the same family……….also evokes a warm sense of community. Sharing the experience with classmates and professors was an important aspect as well.” (Kirsten)
“I could really feel a sense of pride in family. It was a truly wonderful and unique experience to hear the history of the restaurant ……….. then getting to experience the food first-hand. The “family meal” was an absolutely fantastic experience that will surely stand as one of my favorite meals in Italy, and a memorable experience that I will treasure for a lifetime.” (Michaela)
“……….definitely a highlight of my stay in Assisi I really enjoyed meeting the workers and chefs as well as seeing all of the fresh ingredients first-hand. Of course, eating the polenta was an extremely delicious experience! What a treat!” (Michele)
“Our experience at Giovannino’s ristorante was truly unique…………The polenta was delicious, and I loved how everyone just ate right off of a communal board in the middle of the table! ” (Matthew)
“Giovannino’s provided a fabulous experience. It was amazing to see how peasant culture and traditions have been preserved to inform today’s culture. Polenta starts as such a simple dish, but can be transformed into something really fantastic.” (Benjamin)
“Who knew “peasant food” could be so tasty? I have had polenta before but none quite like this! It was especially memorable eating it in the “peasant” family style. It provided a deeper look into the Umbrian culture. When I bring my parents to Italy in the future, Giovannino’s will be a must. ” (Collin)
Read about Da Giovannino as meeting point for wild-boar hunters!
Read about the truffle-hunters stopping at Giovannino’s