If you don’t find polenta appealing, or don’t know what it is and aren’t hungry to find out, this review is not for you. Still here? You’ve made a wise choice. The aptly named Polenta Café in Hampden serves the Italian cornmeal staple in its creamy, caked, and even crunchy forms, and the results are delizioso.
Housed in the former home of Daniela Pasta & Pastries (now a full-scale restaurant down the street), the cafe’s gluten-free menu is as small as its dining room, which includes a bar with a few stools, a counter near the front window, and one table next to a dumbwaiter. It’s a cozy space that co-owner Vincenzo Magaldi says encourages people to talk to one another (even while an Italian internet radio station plays a mix of songs on the sound system). The cafe, which opened in May, is BYOB.
Start with an order of polenta sticks ($6), which look—and taste—like a cross between French fries and crispy breadsticks. They’re served on their own with San Marzano tomato sauce for dipping, or accompanying the mixed greens with honey vinegar and fresh shaved pears ($8). You can also order them with the fresh buffalo mozzarella and beefsteak tomatoes with extra-virgin olive oil and basil ($12), the cold red lentils and coriander soup ($6), or sausage, mozzarella, and organic tomatoes in a basil sauce ($9).
Most dishes including taglieri ($21), a selection of cold cuts and cheeses, come with, of course, a helping of creamy polenta. Cooked—and stirred—over a stovetop for about three hours, the polenta’s consistency might remind some southerners of their grandma’s grits or others of mashed potatoes, but the flavor is slightly sweeter. It’s also served with almost all the entrees, which include homemade meatballs, and shrimp in tarragon sauce. Salsiccia ($15), three sausage links with fennel and onions atop a spongy polenta cake, was the heartiest of our dishes.
Magaldi is a native of a Naples neighborhood in Italy, and he’s always loved polenta. The restaurant’s website touts the dish’s “ability to provide many B-complex vitamins, including vitamins B1, B5, and folic acid, and its notable protein content.” It’s also been credited with improving circulation and providing antioxidant benefits. That may be so, but if you’ve read this far, you already know that the true allure of polenta lies in its corny goodness. If not, you’re about to find out.
›› Polenta Café 900 W. 36th St., 443-682-9388. Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; closed Mon. Appetizers: $6-12; entrees: $12-21.