Discovering Polenta At Chicago’s Spiaggia

creamy polenta recipe“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” –Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

“During the last twenty years, Spiaggia [Chicago’s premier Italian restaurant] has wined and dined the famous, the infamous, trendy ‘foodies’, and some of the most discerning palates in the world,” writes Tony Mantuano and Cathy Mantuano in The Spiaggia Cookbook: Eleganza Italiana in Cucina (2004).

From the great chefs of America and Europe such as Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and Charlie Trotter* to the likes of Sir Elton John, the late Princess Diana, Sir Mick Jagger, Julia Roberts, Billy Joel, Harrison Ford, Sting, Tom Cruise, President Clinton, Paul Newman, Steven Spielberg, and Sir Paul McCartney, Spiaggia – translated as “beach” in Italian – has certainly satisfied the palate of many a famous people.

As the guest of a native Chicagoan, I had the privilege of dining at Spiaggia – located on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Oak Street, with a view of Oak Street beach on Lake Michigan – over 10 years ago. And as I first learned over 25 years ago after eating at New York City’s famous world-renowned Le Cirque, fine dining is an experience that one always remembers.

Indeed, the experience is similar to encountering a different language and set of established rules you might find while traveling in a foreign country. From the menu offerings, whose words are heavy with accents and symbols, to the sophisticated service and wait staff, who are impeccably dressed and thoroughly informed on all things food, wine and dining, it is a transformative experience – a culinary adventure that stimulates the senses, inspires new ideas, and ultimately enlarges one’s view of the world.

Spiaggia chicago

It was at Spiaggia that I first encountered polenta, prepared as a simple dish of corn, cream and cheese with a dollop of pesto that enhanced its culinary sophistication. I have always remembered how unbelievably delicious it was and, despite numerous attempts, have never been able to achieve the heavenly, creamy taste that Spiaggia perfected so well.

However, The Spiaggia Cookbook, in which the recipe for the polenta and pesto can be found (see below), has aided in my attempts to recreate this elegant comfort dish, which is a perfect and seasonable dish as the September summer days roll into cooler autumn air. Full of beauty, the cookbook is “not just a souvenir of a world-class restaurant, but a resource for those who love the discoveries that are made when adventuring with food and wine.”

Below are some excerpts from the book that are inspiring reminders of how much things have changed in the culinary world and how food truly can transform one’s mind, body and soul:

“Although we have highlighted our memories of living and cooking in Italy throughout this book, it is the philosophy of the meal in Italy that is fundamental to our ongoing vision at Spiaggia. Italians believe that if they give special attention to choosing foods that are fresh, natural, and lovingly prepared, the foods will in turn nurture and replenish both body and soul. While eating is a matter of survival, sharing a meal is a ritual that is essential to our relationships connecting the lives of family and friends. It is a way of celebrating each new day.”

“Grandmothers and chefs didn’t need recipes she said; ‘We cook from the heart.’”

“In the early 1980’s, the increasing popularity for upscale Italian food was considered to be a Yuppie infatuation…at the time most Italian “Ristoranti” were considered French inspired and other Italian restaurants were considered Italian American.  As more and more Americans began traveling to Italy and returning home bringing with them a longing for the food and wine that they had experienced, the time was ripe for a new class of Italian restaurant. Believe it or not, contemporary Italian cuisine was virtually nonexistent in America.”

Spiaggia restaurant

*Charlie Trotter (1959- 2013) was another world-renowned chef who, with his restaurant Trotter (1987-2012) – the “eponymous Chicago restaurant [that] was considered one of the finest in the world” – had a significant “impact on American cuisine and the culinary world at large.” He was named an outstanding chef by James Beard in 1999 and his restaurant was named “best restaurant in the nation” in 2000 by Wine Spectator.  He too believed in the spiritual element of dining, as he once wrote: “All four elements were happening in equal measure – the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambience. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.”

Three quotes selected from his beautiful cookbook, Charlie Trotter’s (1994), are inspiring for the life philosophy that he lived by:

“To lose courage is to sin…work, ever more work, con amore, therein lies real happiness.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian novelist (1821-1881)

“It’s all about excellence, or at least working towards excellence.  Early on in your approach to cooking – or to running a restaurant – you have to determine whether or not you are willing to commit fully and completely to the idea of the pursuit of excellence.  I have always looked at it this way: if you strive like crazy for perfection – an all-out assault on total perfection – at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night. Accomplishing something truly significant, excellence has to become a life plan.”

“Until there is commitment, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues forth from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.  Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.  Begin it now!” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet (1742-1832)

Creamy Polenta Recipe
Polenta Bianca or “white corn polenta” (taken from The Spiaggia Cookbook)

White corn polenta is the lightest and most elegant variety, according to this cookbook recipe.

When you make white corn polenta, the finished texture should be that of runny mashed potatoes or very creamy risotto.  You should be able to pour the polenta, it should actually relax onto the plate and then spread out slightly, but to too far.  If the polenta stands up like whipped cream, you need to add more water or stock to achieve the desired consistency.

spiaggia wine menuIngredients:
2 cups water
Sea Salt
1/2 cup white polenta
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground white pepper

In large saucepan over medium heat, bring the water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and slowly pour in the polenta, stirring constantly to avoid any lumps (Crush any lumps that form by pressing them against the side of the pot with a spoon). Stir vigorously as the polenta thickens. Continue to cook the polenta, stirring often, until it loses its grainy texture and becomes smooth, about 20-30 minutes. Add the butter, cream, and Parmesan and stir until well incorporated.  Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Serve immediately.

Pesto Alla Genovese – Lingurian Pesto

2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1 clove garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup grated Romano Cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Parmesan cheese
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a blender or food processor, combine the basil, garlic, pine nuts, and salt. Process, stopping to scrape down the sides of the jar or bowl as needed, until the basil is finely chopped. Add the cheeses gradually, processing to a coarse paste. Slowly add the olive oil in a fine stream and process until the pesto is smooth and creamy. The pesto can be frozen for up to 1 month.

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