Il Tribbio is a group of people in Spello who are dedicated to keeping the old traditions alive, and keeping the arts in Spello vibrant and thriving. They often have special events, such as the barbeque last spring that featured traditional herbs foraged from the mountain, used in both the pasta sauce and the sausage panini we all enjoyed. This time, the party was all about polenta—“la polenta alla spianatora.” The “spianatora” is the big board in most traditional Italian kitchens where the pasta is rolled out, and this particular tradition was the way polenta was served many years ago—with only a spoon for each person and the pile of polenta in the center of the table for communal dining–no plates. In fact, after WWII, when so many here were living in extreme poverty while recovering from the damages of war, the polenta was served with lots of polenta and sauce, and with only ONE sausage in the middle of the spianatora. Everyone started out from the edges, and the first person to reach the sausage by eating all of his/her portion of polenta won the sausage. Of course, Angelo (my teacher, and always the narrator) was there to explain the history and tradition, and he explained that the sausage was also a phallic symbol, that the men raced to win and eat as a sign of their virility.
We arrived at Il Pintoricchio restaurant for lunch, and 40 of us took our seats. It was decided to keep the “Anglos” at one table (we had assigned seats), and the Italians at two others—with a fourth separate table full of teens and young adults, all friends from Tasmania and Australia. First, appetizers were served—bruschette, crostini with olive oil, and deep fried zucchini and eggplant. Movements were tight for the servers, with so many long tables in one room, but then came the polenta on long boards, and even extra small boards to make certain that everyone at the ends of the tables had polenta in front of them to eat.
When the polenta arrived, hot and smothered in a tomato sauce full of bits of sausage, we all grabbed our big spoons and dug in. I must add that polenta is filling—and it took no time at all for me to put my spoon down and declare the polenta the winner. Down at the far end of the table, however, Bill and Doug were cleaning off the board while the rest of us had already started groaning that we had eaten too much.
Shortly after pranzo, we had a small program. Martha Schut and husband Doug Peters sang a song together that was written for a cousin who passed away not long ago. Doug wrote the music, Martha the lyrics—and they sang together acapella for all of us. Then later, Luigi (Lou) was presented with a commemorative plate by the Michelangelo Gallery, the epicenter of the Il Tribbio group here in Spello. Our entire polentata event was filmed, and we all appeared on the news that evening in a small feature.
A few days later, a sign appeared outside the Gallery, along with an article from the local paper, the Corriere dell’Umbria, written about the gathering of friends over polenta—a very old tradition.
A day or so after the event, I was speaking with the woman who runs the Mercato del’Usato, looking for a small second-hand bookcase there, and we were talking about the “polenta alla spianatoia.” She got excited, jumped up and brought back a new polenta board made from oak–out of a box of them that she had just gotten in to sell. They were new, and small, and only €2 each, but perfect for a dinner I was hosting in a few days with both Leonardo and Paola, and also my friends Suzanna and Phil. Since I have to be imaginative to provide Suzanna and Phil vegetarian meals, I immediately thought of repeating the polentata experience, and bought some boards to bring home. I made a sauce full of mushrooms and vegetables for them, and one full of chicken and sausage for Leonardo, Paola and me. We each had our own type of “spianatora” to share, and it was a fun experience to bring my luncheon lesson home to share with them.
I got to have the opportunity to do my own polentata, and bring friends to the table around a common board of polenta–with two kinds of sauce–and we had a wonderful night together. Good idea, that polentata!