Polenta alla Spianatora

Polenta alla Spianatora


Felice anno nuovo! Happy New Year!

If your family is anything like mine, the past two weeks have been filled with food, wine and plenty of feasting!  On a cold evening between Christmas and New Year’s, my father had a spur-of-the-moment hankering for “polenta alla spianatora” (or “spianatoia,” a wooden pastry or dough-making board).  My three young children gaped in awe as their Nonno poured soft-cooked polenta in a thin, even layer directly onto a wooden board positioned in the center of the table and then topped it with a meaty slow-cooked sugo.

As we served ourselves to helpings of polenta, my father talked about partaking in this rustic, communal meal during his youth.   When my dad was a kid in rural Abruzzo, the polenta was poured not on a wooden board or plank, but rather, directly on the wooden dining table at the home of his grandparents, Nonna Nunziata e Nonno Roberto.  Each of the grandchildren was given a fork – no dishes – and instructed to dig into the polenta that was in front of him or her.   The cousins would have polenta races, carving out paths that led to the sausage and braised pork sparsely scattered around the center.    These rare, precious bits of meat were a valuable prize to the children of this poor mountain village.


My father pouring the polenta onto the wooden “spianatora”

The polenta conversation sparked the considerable curiosity of my eight-year old son who proceeded to grill my father about his life in Abruzzo as a child.  Stories of walking along the village streets with his pet lamb trailing behind him (our family’s very own, “Gino Had a Little Lamb”) led to reminiscences about my parents’ respective sea voyages from Italy to the USA in the 1960s and finally to tales of their escapades as newly arrived immigrants in New York.

Yes, our dinner was tasty and comforting .  However, the real magic of that dinner was not in the food that we ate, but rather, in my father’s misty-eyed nostalgia, my son’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and the sheer power of these food memories over the three generations seated at the table.

Wishing you a year filled with good food and all of the joy that it brings!


Although we use a simple wooden board constructed by my father, my friend Terry Mirri of Artisanal Pasta Tools in Northern California (www.artisanalpastatools.com) sells beautiful handcrafted polenta boards for a more elegant presentation.



Recipe by Majella Home Cooking©

Since we prepared this dish “all’improvviso,” the photos don’t exactly reflect the recipe. We didn’t have the quantity or both types of meat on hand that the recipe calls for.  This is a really unique communal dining experience to share with family and close friends so it’s worth the effort to prepare a slow-simmered sugo.

Serves 8

For the Sugo (sauce):

  • 2 pounds pork neck bones
  • 2 lbs Italian sausages
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium onion, cut in half
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 (32-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, passed through a food mill, or crushed tomatoes
  • 1 medium carrot, cut in half crosswise
  • 1 branch basil leaves

To make the sugo, generously season the pork bones with salt and pepper. Into a wide skillet, pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork bones and brown for about 6 minutes on each side. Remove to a bowl. Next, add the sausages to the skillet and brown for about 5 minutes on each side

To a large sauce pot, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set over medium heat. Add the garlic cloves and onion halves and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until they are just beginning to color. Add the tomato paste and stir around the bottom of the pot until sizzling, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, carrot, and basil to the pot, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil.  Add the browned pork bones and any accumulated juices, as well as the sausages, to the pot, adjust the heat so that the sauce remains at a steady and gentle simmer and cook for an hour, stirring occasionally.

Stir in 1 teaspoon of salt and several grindings of black pepper continue to cook for 30 minutes longer or until the sauce is thick and the flavors have melded together. Remove and discard the onion and garlic cloves and remove the meat to a bowl.  Skim any excess fat from the surface of the sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Keep the sauce and meat warm until serving time.

For the Polenta:

  • 8 cups water or low sodium chicken broth (or a combination of the two)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 cups yellow imported Italian polenta (I usually buy the brands, La Grande Ruota or Moretti fioretto polenta)
To make the polenta, bring the water and/or chicken broth to a boil in a large heavy-bottomed stainless steel or cast-iron enameled saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons of salt. Gradually whisk in the polenta. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the mixture thickens and the polenta is tender still very loose and creamy, stirring almost constantly, about 20-25 minutes.  Turn off the heat.
Pour the polenta directly onto a large, clean wooden pastry board or plank in a thin, even layer.  Use a silicon spatula or wooden spoon to smooth it out.  Top the entire surface of the polenta with the sauce and scatter the sausages and braised pork throughout.  Serve with grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Buon appetito!

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26 Responses to Polenta alla Spianatora

  1. Marie January 3, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    Beautiful memories to cherish and wonderful food!

  2. Helen January 3, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    What a story and a joy for your boys. So I got a grip on my polenta making. I have no idea why I was using corn meal instead of a courser corn grit. Mental breakdown or something. Next time I am in NY, I’ll stock up on the brands you suggest here, but in the meantime, it’s Bob’s organic “polenta” which I have been pretty happy with when I can even find THAT. So, what is your theory about putting the polenta in the pot first and slowly adding the broth or water? Anna Teresa Callen insists on that method.

    • Majella Home Cooking January 3, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

      Grazie, Helen. As our friend Jacqui from Kokopelli Camping said, there is really something very “primitively comforting” about this meal. As for the polenta cookery, you’ve stumped me! I’ve never tried Callen’s method, but I’m curious! I’m sure Bob’s polenta is very good – I’ve always been satisfied with the brand’s specialty flours and grains. The Italian brands I mention are also available from specialty purveyors online. Stay warm, my friend!

  3. Ciao Chow Linda January 3, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Pass me a fork. I want to dig in. Seriously, this is comfort food at its finest – and the story proves it. I love these wonderful family times around the table that lend themselves to passing down of happy memories through the generations.

    • Majella Home Cooking January 5, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

      Isn’t it just incredible to bring traditions to life among multiple generations? That’s why I love my dad’s humble little village of Salle as much as I do. Seeing my kids play in the same streets tread by their grandfather is priceless. Same goes for these food traditions. Happy New Year, my friend!

  4. Frank @Memorie di Angelina January 4, 2014 at 8:51 am #

    Wonderful memories! Polenta was not a big part of my growing up, although my grandmother did make it occasionally, served boringly in individual bowls… I love the idea of a huge mound in the middle of a big, wooden table, so convivial!

    • Majella Home Cooking January 5, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

      Hi Frank, When I was a kid, I remember my dad throwing “polenta parties” for my mother’s Sicilian relatively and “paesani.” I was a picky eater and wouldn’t partake, but “i Siciliani” loved it as polenta was very novel for them. Convivial is really the perfect adjective for it!

  5. Dolores Di Giulio Horvat January 4, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

    My parents came from Goriano Valle and we always had polenta on the board. We always thought we were the only people who ate it that way. I am very happy to read that other people eat it that way also. We would carve out our own section. It was a lot of fun when we had polenta.

    • Majella Home Cooking January 5, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

      Thanks, Dolores. My kids had so much fun! They were positively in awe of the presentation.

  6. Roz January 5, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    Polenta has been prepared in my family since I can remember! Your father is so special for making this wonderful dish for you!

    • Majella Home Cooking January 5, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

      Thanks, Roz. It was a truly special evening and a fabulous dinner – to borrow Frank’s term, “convivial.”

  7. Adri January 6, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    What lovely memories! This was not something we enjoyed in my home as I grew up. We just never ate it. But my husband Bart rhapsodizes loud an long regaling my family with his warm memories of this dish. It has now become a favorite in our home. Isn’t it something the things w we all share?

    • Majella Home Cooking January 6, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

      Happy New Year, Adri! My Sicilian mother did not have polenta growing up either. However, she mentioned that in Sicily, her family enjoyed a communal meal of maccheroni in the same fashion. I need to probe her for more details – doesn’t it sound like fun?!

  8. domenicacooks January 6, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    Great story, Michelle. I think we need to get the Capobianco kids and the Vance kids together to do this. Can you imagine?! Nick is not a polenta fan but I bet the idea of tunneling his way to the sausages in the center would make him a convert. Isn’t it wonderful how much joy a communal meal can bring? On Helen’s question about polenta, I kind of like a finer grain, but that’s just my personal taste. I’ve never made it Callen’s way either. Sounds a bit like a risotto technique. Some years ago I started serving chili over polenta ~ it’s really good! Buon Anno!

    • Majella Home Cooking January 6, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

      Let’s make a deal, Domenica – garden polenta party next summer at our house in Salle! Although the dish doesn’t exactly scream “summer,” I think Nick could show those little Capo boys a thing or two about paving polenta roads! Buon anno e un abbraccio forte a tutti!

  9. Lisa D. January 7, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    What a wonderful story! My grandmother used to fix polenta every Christmas. She would pour it onto a platter to be sliced and topped with stewed beef and stewed chicken and sausages with cabbage . Grams is gone now. I make the same meal every year, i feel her there with me as i fix it. It takes me right back to seeing my grandma in her kitchen cooking and all of is enjoying this wonderful meal in her dining room! Such great memories!

    • Majella Home Cooking January 7, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      Ciao, Lisa, Thanks for stopping by and “complimenti” to you for carrying on your Grams’ tradition. The memories – past, present and future – are truly priceless. A presto! Michelle

  10. Clementina January 7, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Sulla polenta mia nonna ci metteva oltre al sugo anche i cavoli [verza] fritti,
    comunque la tua ricetta e l’autentica e buonissima polenta abruzzese, grazie!

    • Majella Home Cooking January 7, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

      Grazie, Clementina e benvenuta al mio sito! Che buona la polenta con la verza! Le nonne erano tutte incomparabile in cucina. Davvero, viva l’Abruzzo! A presto, Michelle

  11. Rosie January 8, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    Thank you bringing back such fond memories of my childhood. I still have the board that my mother used for our polenta. I am going to visit your site and order one of your boards for my daughter.

    • Majella Home Cooking January 8, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

      Welcome and you’re very welcome, Rosie! The site for the polenta boards is my friend Terry Mirri’s company, Artisanal Pasta Tools. He is truly a master craftsman. You won’t be disappointed. I hope you’ll stop by again! A presto, Michelle

  12. Gian Banchero January 11, 2014 at 10:01 am #

    Thank you for the recipe using the spianatora, my Sicilian mother used to serve polenta as such, also pasta, though most of the time directly from on top of our old tin table. Over the years I’ve told my Italian American friends about the custom but much to their disbelief, I’ve sent this article to them which has corrected the story… OK, now when are you coming out with your cookbook? If you did I know it would have honored status in my collection… Oh, my family here in the States and in Italy many times make polenta in a pressure cooker with excellent results, just place the ingredients in the cooker, bring up to high pressure then cook at a very low heat for ten minutes, the result is not only speedy but spectacular, as such polenta can be made often with a minimum of fuss.

    • Majella Home Cooking January 15, 2014 at 11:11 am #

      I would love to write a cookbook one day, Gian! Thank you for your kind words and support. My Sicilian mother also spoke on eating pasta from a board when she was growing up. Beautiful traditions that must be preserved!

  13. nino ventura February 7, 2014 at 6:35 am #

    Dear Michelle, This dish reminds me of my childhood at my grandparents’ house in Castiglione a Casauria (Pescara), we were all sitting around the table with my grandparents, my parents and everyone in the family. Everyone chose a path to eat polenta cooked in the “callara” copper in the fireplace and then reversed directly on the wooden board. Beautiful memories. I am moved.
    Hello Nino Ventura – Fano (Pesaro) – Italy

  14. Lawrence Bohme February 14, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    In the 1960 movie “Tutti a casa” starring Alberto Sordi, the subject of which is the attempt of Italian soldiers to desert the army when the Allies start getting close enough to Rome, there is a scene in which one of the deserters (Sordi) and an American GI who has fled a fascist prison camp are sheltered in a farm near Verona where the polenta is served right on the table – no special spianatora boards! the American tries to grab the sausage in the middle but is told off by Sordi – it’s very funny, and beautiful. I have been in Italy often but didn’t know about this charming custom. it is like the way of making paella here in Spain where I now live – the rice and fish and meat are almost cooked through and very soupy, but then taken off the fire to dry out and finish cooking on their own until the rice is swollen with the sauce. They say “arroz, mal cocido y bien reposado” – rice, undercooked and well-rested”.

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