A dish typical of Northern Italy and especially associated with the mountains of Valtellina, where polenta is enjoyed almost all year round. However each region has its own.
Eating it sliced and fried is quite common in Italy’s central regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Campania. Sardinians often eat polenta along with pecorino cheese or sausage, while in the Como area of Lombardy, the specialty “pulenta uncia” (greasy polenta) is made with a mixture of corn flour and buckwheat, then topped with butter, garlic, sage and cheese. In Tuscany, leftover polenta is either fried or baked and then topped with tomatoes and cheese.
Many will be surprised to learn that modern-day polenta was actually brought to Italy from the United States, when Christopher Columbus returned from his first exploration with a product the Europeans had never seen: corn. Until that time, polenta had only been made with rough-ground flour made from spelt, barley or buckwheat.
In the rich, fertile soil of Northern Italy, however, corn thrived and because it was so easy and cheap to cultivate, it became a wildly popular crop among farmers. With its neutral flavor, polenta became an alternative to bread and still today is just as popular in household kitchens as it is in restaurants.
Today’s chefs let their imaginations run wild by using polenta, Claudio Sadler fills the tortelli with taleggio cheese. Massimiliano Alajmo slices paper-thin sheets of polenta, drying them in the oven, and pairing them with fish eggs or seafood. Chef Fabio Cucchelli makes a baccalà with polenta and speak.
Polenta appears as flaky, savory pastry stuffed with mushrooms, gorgonzola or even just butter and white truffle. It goes without saying that polenta is most appealing when the weather outside is chilly. In Italy, polenta is most commonly maid with corn flour, but there are many possible variations depending on which grains and cereals are available and in season—even chestnuts make an excellent polenta. White polenta, made from white corn, is popular in cities like Padua and Venice, where polenta is commonly paired with fish and seafood.
When polenta is eaten with spiced sauces and braised meats, it’s best accompanied by medium or full-bodied red wines like Cabernet-Sauvignon, Barbera, Cabernet, or reds from Trentino, Valpolicella, or Tuscany.
Corn flour can also be used to prepare sweets—a handful added to sweet dough adds an interesting texture to baked goods and pastries. A simple but unforgettable pleasure is that of soft polenta covered with butter, sugar, cinnamon and then drenched in slightly sweetened milk: this, for generations, was the hearty breakfast for many rural farmers. The traditional cake, amor polenta, is made from corn flour and which is baked like a sponge cake and then often sprinkled with chocolate.