We talk to Cristina Sparcaci, founder of La Polenteria, a newly opened gluten-free polenta restaurant in London’s Soho.

A naturally gluten-free ingredient most commonly associated with the peasant cuisine of Northern Italy, polenta, or cornmeal, is the star of the show at La Polenteria, a brand new restaurant on London’s Old Compton Street, where dishes including polenta breakfast muffins, creamy polenta with blueberry and maple syrup and polenta with wild boar goulash form the basis of a polenta-focused menu suitable for the growing numbers of people following a gluten-free diet. We caught up with founder, Cristina Sparcaci to find out more.

The idea for La Polenteria came about a few years ago... I’m from Romania originally where, like in Italy, polenta is a traditional dish. It’s something I have eaten and enjoyed since I was a child.

Polenta is a fantastic ingredient... It’s quite filling but, being gluten-free, it is also light and easily digested, so you don’t feel heavy like you would if you had a pizza or burger. It can be fried, grilled or served plain and has a very neutral taste that makes it an extremely versatile base for savoury or sweet dishes. It’s also affordable, so everyone can eat it.

We source our polenta from Bergamo in Italy, near Milan. Polenta is a very traditional dish in Northern Italy... Our supplier’s polenta is specified and accredited as gluten-free and completely free from GMO ingredients. All the sauces we serve with our polenta are also gluten-free and we also serve bars of gluten-free Venchi chocolate from Turin to go as well as gluten-free ale.

I always dreamed of owning my own restaurant... I trained myself by working within different roles within the industry – hotels, bars and restaurants – and really learnt everything I know now under my own steam. With La Polenteria, I have tried to combine the best of all the places I have worked.

You don’t find polenta being served much in UK restaurants... It takes a long time to cook properly if you stick to the traditional way of cooking it – 45 minutes - so I assume this is the main reason why. We are the first restaurant in the UK to introduce polenta as the key ingredient on our menu.

Gluten-free for me is healthy and when you heat healthily, you feel better... I’m not gluten intolerant, but a lot of customers are and you can see the smile on their faces when they come into the restaurant and realise they can eat everything on the menu.

We also have non-gluten free items on the menu though... We don’t want to be labeled as the gluten-free restaurant. La Polenteria is somewhere everyone can gather and enjoy good food, including those suffering from coeliac disease and gluten intolerance.

My favourite dish on the menu is… the mushrooms. It’s very simply cooked. Just porcini and wild mushrooms and a little bit of white wine. It has a very strong flavour of wild mushrooms, which perfectly complements the plainer base of the polenta.

The biggest challenge in setting up La Polenteria has been… finding the right location. I wanted somewhere that would present the concept to the London market in the best way and Old Compton Street is perfect. It’s very lively, very enthusiastic and very open to new things. There are lots of other independent businesses and the neighbours are very, very welcoming.

This year, we are focusing on… educating our customers on who and where we are and what polenta is. We’re also working with local businesses and donating a percentage of our income to a local school in Soho.

Our goal is to create… a very friendly, relaxing, family atmosphere where anyone from a group of friends to local businesses can pop in anytime. We’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner so I’m there 17 hours a day and am taking a very hands on role. It’s a lot of fun and great to see staff and customers so happy. We haven’t had any negative feedback so far!

Emily Jenkinson

March 2014