Pasta reigns supreme in the minds of most Americans as the staple of Italian cuisine. But in the north of Italy, mothers have been hovering at the hearth, patiently stirring polenta in their beloved copper paioli, since pre-Roman times.
Grits, a similar dish celebrated in the cuisine of the American south, have grabbed a foothold in the consciousness of New York diners in recent years, but polenta has largely remained in the shadows.
Alex Palumbo, a native of the northern Italy’s Piedmont region, aims to change that. At Osteria il Paiolo, his northern Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, polenta sits squarely in the spotlight. Next week, in an effort to proselytize his signature dish, he’s staging ‘Polenta-palooza,’ featuring special flights of his private stash of heirloom polenta.
We met up with Alex to learn more about the under-appreciated dish, the importance of tablecloths…and motorcycle racing.
So Alex, polenta. Here in the states it’s something you don’t come across much. Tell me about it.
Yes, yes – it’s true. You know, in northern Italy, where I am from, everyone eats polenta. All the time. They have eaten polenta since before the Roman empire. They call us ‘polentone.’ The southern Italians, they call ‘terrone.’ But the northern Italians, they call polentone because all we eat is polenta!
I really love polenta. Maybe it’s because when I was a kid, my mom, she always made polenta for me. Even in the morning you can have polenta – with the leftover polenta she used to cut it into cubes and give it to us with milk and sugar. I love it too because you can eat polenta with anything – with sweet things, with meat, with cheese…
So what is polenta?
It’s a grain made from ground maize…from corn. There are two different kinds of polenta – the finely ground polenta and the coarser one. I like the coarse one, the big polenta. I prefer it.
Like I said, in northern Italy we have been eating polenta since before the Roman empire. It used to be made with flour from wheat, but when they brought maize from North America, it grew really well in Northern Italy, and so they started to make it with corn. That’s how we have made it ever since.
I’m from Piedmont, from a small town on Lake Maggiore, not far from Milan. Close to the mountains. We do polenta our way. They do polenta in Lombardi, close to Milan, in Bergamo, all over the north. In every place where they make polenta, they have a different recipe, a different way of cooking it. In every region, every town, every restaurant, every family, they have their own way to make polenta. My mom made polenta her way. I’d go to my friend’s house and his mom made it a different way. My grandmother was from the Veneto. She was making polenta too, but it was Veneto polenta. Everybody has their own secret way.
What is the secret to good polenta?
You have to start with good polenta. In the beginning I was using the polenta I found over here, and it was not polenta. It was not good polenta. The flavor, the taste of the polenta here, even if you cook it perfectly, it has no flavor. It doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to taste. You can find a lot of polenta here, but it is not good polenta. So I said, “I have to find my own.”
So my wife and I, we went back to Italy to find the best. We went to many restaurants to try polenta. At one restaurant, it was so good, I asked them, “Where do you buy the polenta?” They told me where so we went to visit the producer. I spoke to him and now I buy from him. My brother is in Italy. He goes to buy the polenta from this guy, and he sends it to my house. I bring it here. The polenta I have, nobody else has in New York.
Can you tell me who the producer is, or is it a secret?
Of course it is a secret. I cannot tell you my secret! Ha ha ha. It’s from a very little producer. It’s the best I have found anywhere. I’m really picky about the polenta. If I’m going to have a little polenta menu, it has to be the best polenta.
So what else factors into making really good polenta?
You have to cook the polenta in a copper pot. In Italy, we always make the polenta in a copper pot, called the paiolo. This is the traditional way. I don’t know why, but it tastes better when you use the paiolo. The copper keeps the polenta moist, and the way it heats the polenta is better. You can cook polenta in a regular pot, but it tastes different.
In Italy, you never ask, “Why?” We have made polenta for a long, long time in the copper pot. My mother made the polenta in a copper pot. I just did it the way she did it. She would just say, “This is the best way.” So this is how I do it.
In New York, at a lot of the restaurants where I worked before, they make the polenta with cheese, with butter, to give it more flavor. Some people say, “You need more – the polenta doesn’t have a lot of flavor.” But the real way to make polenta is just with water and salt. That’s it. Good polenta doesn’t need cheese or butter. Just water and salt.
Also, when you make the polenta, you have to keep stirring. You cannot leave the polenta there. You have to keep stirring, for forty five minutes, or an hour. When you start to see a little crust forming along the sides of the pot, you know it’s ready. You serve it on a big plate for your friends. In the restaurant it’s different – everybody has their own little plate. It’s more complicated.
Polenta is always best when you eat it right after you cook it, at that moment. You can have it the next day, easily. You cover it with a wet cloth and keep it in the fridge. Maybe the next day you slice it and fry the slices in a pan and serve it with milk for breakfast. Or you fry it with a little olive oil and put some cheese on top and it’s very good. Fried polenta with some Gorgonzola cheese on top? It’s very good. But the best thing to do is to cook it and serve it right away. That’s the best. It’s really nice.
Would you say you’re on a kind of mission to turn New Yorkers on to good polenta?
For me, yes. When we opened the restaurant I was making about ten pounds a polenta a month. Now we’re making about sixty pounds a month. We have a little polenta menu all the time. We have a polenta with a little pan-seared quail on top, a polenta with sausage and a really simple tomato sauce. We have a polenta with shrimp and rosemary, and one with a nice Fontina cheese from Italy. We do special polenta, for the season, with mushroom, or with shaved truffle or cheese. A lot of people now, they come in just to have polenta.
There are a lot of Italian people who live over here. They come in, they see the polenta, they say, “Oh, nice polenta!” They always ask you, “Is there cheese in the polenta? Butter?” I say, “No, no. Just water, salt.” So they order it right away. That’s what they want to know.
I have never found good polenta in New York. In the place that I worked at before, Da Silvano, the polenta was always with butter, cheese. It’s a great restaurant, but I didn’t like the polenta. A week ago, I went to Del Posto. They had a polenta, but it was not even close to a polenta, I think. It was like water. It’s a great restaurant, but I was disappointed with the polenta. The only place where I have had good polenta is here. Maybe because we have the good quality polenta.
So Alex, what brought you to New York? And how did you end up in the restaurant business?
My father used to have a restaurant a long time ago. And we had shops where we made food – piadina. Do you know piadina?
Piadina is a specialty from Emilia Romagna. It’s like a sandwich. It’s a flat bread, and you can put inside of it all different things. It can be very good.
I came to New York for the first time on vacation, when I was twenty two. And then I came back because I wanted to stay here. I wanted to learn how to have a restaurant in New York City. It was my dream, my American dream, you can say.
I started to work as a bus boy because I was not speaking English. And then I was a waiter, and then a manager. At Da Silvano I became the general manager. I learned everything there. Silvano? We are friends. He was my teacher. He taught me everything about how to run a restaurant. I met a lot of people, all the vendors. After five or six years working over there I was thinking it was time to open my own restaurant. That’s why I came here, to do something for me. So…
I’ve always lived in Williamsburg – for twelve years. My wife, she found this location for the restaurant. She helped me a lot. She said, “Now, you have to do something for yourself.” And so we opened this place.
Do you do the cooking here?
I cook sometimes, but I have to stay in the front. We are an osteria. With an osteria, the owner is the host. That’s what it means to be an osteria. So I have to be in the front. I work together with my chef, Octavio, of course. We work together on recipes, on everything.
I go to the markets three times a week, to Hunts Point, to buy fish, meat, veggies. I go at one o’clock in the morning. I come back at six o’clock. Now, I know how to shop there, but in the beginning it was hard for me. In the beginning, nobody will sell you the good stuff. Maybe they’ll have three cases of branzino. You’ll say, “I need branzino.” They’ll say, “No. We don’t have any more.” After a while, they see you all the time, they start to save the good stuff for you. Now I know where to go. I know the people. But at the beginning it was horrible!
If I see something I like at the market, I can get it and I can bring it back here and work with Octavio to come up with a special. Octavio is really good. I like to work with him. He speaks Italian too, so we understand each other a lot.
How long have you been open here? And how has it been?
Almost two years. Now we are doing pretty well. The first year was difficult. Nobody knows you. It’s like being a little girl. You have to grow up. It’s difficult. You have to be patient. I was thinking it would be less difficult than it was.
You see the tablecloths on all the tables here? Nobody else in Williamsburg has tablecloths. Here in Williamsburg, when we opened, I think the people were scared of the tablecloths. But now they come.
My friends said, “What are you doing!? Nobody’s going to come in because you have tablecloths!” Tablecloths, you know, it’s an Italian thing. In Italy you always have a tablecloth. At home, in all the restaurants. It costs me more money to have tablecloths, but I prefer it. I had to stick with my idea. When you have a restaurant, it’s like you are the captain of your own boat. If you’re going to go down, you go down with the ship.
What do you like to do when you’re not at the restaurant?
I like to race motorcycles. My brother races motorcycles too. When I’m in Italy, we race together. We have fun together. Around here, there are a few tracks where you can race.
I like to go fast. With my bike, maximum speed is 178 miles per hour. I like my bike. It’s a Yamaha. It’s really good. BMW of course has the new generation of bike, with traction control and all these electronics so it’s simpler to ride. But simple isn’t always the most fun. It’s more fun with a little danger.
I don’t really like to ride in the city. Too much traffic. I go to Bear Mountain or New Jersey so I can ride, but the police are always watching, so you can’t have too much fun. In Italy they let you have more fun.
My wife used to ride with me all the time, but not anymore because we have a little girl now. Now, I need…what do you call it? A sidecar. I have to get a sidecar because I want to take my little Valentina to school on the motorcycle!
Osteria il Paiolo is located at 106 N. 6th Street (between Berry & Wythe), in Williamsburg. Polenta-palooza will feature special flights of Alex’s prized heirloom polenta from Sunday, May 20th, to Thursday the 24th.