Why you should care
Because sometimes innovating means bringing back origins.
Fine, Italy invented the Slow Food movement (personally: overrated), but who says fast food can’t be Italian and delicious? That in order to be premium and genuine, our cuisine must be slow, traditional, respectful of cooking rules and original recipes … zzzz … zzzz.
“That’s bullshit. Look at what I’ve created,” says Marco Pirovano, a volcanic and on-the-run young chef who founded Il PolentOne, an eccentric street-food chain in northern Italy serving delicious takeaway polenta with a modern twist.
Hold on, first things first: Polenta, a peasant cornmeal mush believed to have aphrodisiac powers — farmers gulped down huge quantities in the past so they could have lots of babies to boost their family workforce — is the emblem of the city of Bergamo. Like the Coliseum is for Rome. Locals here still make it following a ritual: slowly cooked on the fireplace, hours and hours spent turning the mush around in a pot to get that gluey texture. Topping: tomato sauce with sausages. But crazy Marco turned it into a street fast food, playing on the pun “Il PolentOne,” a slightly derogatory term used by southerners in Italy to describe their northern brothers: no sense of humor, slow in thought and action, densely sluggish and colorless, just like their yellowish-white polenta that has a neutral taste if savored on its own. (Pirovano, for the record, is totally the opposite: Just talk with him for two seconds and your ears go on fire.)
Alongside boosting sexual desire (which never hurts), it has powerful digestive properties.
But how about adding to plain polenta porcini mushrooms, yogurt, bacon, salad, sprinkled sugar, mozzarella cheese, deer, hare — too bad his city recently banned the addition of yummy little birds — artichokes and Nutella? Yup, you got it: that heavenly hazelnut-and-chocolate cream that once you open the jar, 10 seconds later it’s already empty. Pirovano created rectangular finger-food sticks of polenta biscuits to dip into a hot cup of milk or cappuccino. He serves the mush in colorful plastic ice cream cups, rather than on the usual wooden platter, with pink spoons to scoop it up and chopsticks as cutlery. It’s pure eat-and-go: You can either sit on the outdoor stools or grab a takeaway bag to enjoy at home. That’s revolutionary.
Most Italians would turn their noses up in disgust: “Ew, no thanks, that’s sooo American!” Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen: Wasn’t corn imported from the New World when Christopher Columbus landed unexpectedly on the other side of the Atlantic? So, please, let’s not be too obtuse. Pirovano — covered in tattoos and earrings, dressed like a rapper — defeated local traditions and recovered the original American gene of polenta: “C’mon, man, why can’t we have our own fast foods, with typical Italian products but served in a different way from ordinary taverns?” Plus, polenta is healthy: It kills cholesterol and is gluten-free (it’s made of maize). And alongside boosting sexual desire (which never hurts), it has powerful digestive properties. Pirovano’s motto is: “Just as quickly you eat it up, as quickly it goes down the stomach, all the way to the bottom exit!”
And so his Il PolentOne is now a cool foodie hot spot, not just in town but beyond. All over Italy. He’s even opened one in Rome, which fills him with pride: “Wow! Defying and then winning over the stuck-up Romans who call us polentoni — that was a victory.” And, being restless and frenetic, he exported his polenta fast foods across Europe, starting with Spain (makes sense: Columbus set sail from there). But on one thing he’s dogmatic: Pushing forth innovation doesn’t mean violating quality. The type of polenta he serves is of the highest quality and comes from farms where it is still crushed in stone mills, like in the old days. Just as Pirovano’s granny did, who raised him on steaming cups of polenta, milk and Nutella. If in faraway America, Italian-style cornmeal might not be at hand, try taking a slice of white pizza, cut it open like a sandwich and fill it with Nutella until it drips. Hmm-hmm, an absolutely divine salty-sweet concoction. Thank you, Marco.