Polentoni

38 Easter Rd, Edinburgh

0131 661 6182

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Lunch/Dinner: £10-£24

Food rating 8½/10

A LIKEABLE little Italian food concern on Edinburgh’s Easter Road has established a loyal following. With one cook from Naples, the other from Padua, it’s not exactly either northern or southern Italian, although it takes it name from the insult that southerners use for northerners, "polentoni", which refers to northern Italians' fondness for this cornmeal dish. When southern Italians want to say something derogatory to their northern compatriots they might say: “Mangia polenta!” (Go eat polenta!) Northerners might respond with their put-down for southerners, “terroni”, derived from “la terra” (the earth), a dig at the fact that southern Italy’s less prosperous, arguably, more "backward" economy is agriculture-based.

Polentoni popped up in an area that’s steeped in Italian-Scottish history. In her latest family memoir, Dear Alfonso, Mary Contini (of Valvona & Crolla fame) recounts how another little shop on Easter Road was where her love-struck father-in-law, Carlo Contini, first dared to approach his future wife, the "bellissima" Olivia Crolla. If you weren’t visiting Valvona & Crolla in nearby Elm Row, Polentoni would be a perfect location to read this delightful book as you graze its daytime café menu. Thoughtfully curated, it conserves the best features of its old shop premises without straying down a twee heritage path. Its coddling warmth combined with its portfolio of possibilities – freshly cut panini with salumi and cheese spilling out of them, arancini, home-made pizza and focaccia, tartlets (dark chocolate, raspberry frangipane, mascarpone with fresh berries), and captivating cakes – orange and blueberry polenta, lemon almond chocolate, hazelnut pistachio caramel – begets contentment.

So you can depend on Polentoni for a sound breakfast or elevenses, and by lunchtime, on come the salads, the frittata, a pasta, a meat dish perhaps. And now, on a few evenings a week, Polentoni serves a manageably priced dinner that feels fresh from il bel paese. I say fresh because Polentoni offers dishes I’ve only ever seen in Italy, executed as they would be in Italy. First up there’s sarde in saor, fried sardine fillets marinated in vinegar along with softly fried onions, one of those classic Venetian "cicchetti" commonly served in la Serenissima’s bacari (wine bars). It’s a generous portion, and the fish, which has been expertly filleted and so is free of irritating bones, comes warm on oily sourdough toast with a green herby emulsion around it. Our other starter is the homely soup that unites Italy, pasta e fagioli. It tastes as if the borlotti beans have been soaked and cooked, not tipped out a tin. The smooth beany body of the soup is stippled with celery and carrot; the pasta – short, tubular ditalini – are still al dente so there are three textures: velvety liquidised beans, firm silky pasta, and earthy whole beans. It’s finished off with ribbons of crisp smoked pancetta and Parmesan. A simple, elemental dish, which warms the cockles of your heart.

Along comes the porchetta, pork belly smeared with a paste of rosemary, garlic, salt, and fennel, then rolled. This isn’t the crisp-skinned porchetta that comes stuffed in a panino in Italian markets, more of a slow, melting braise where the soft fat dissolves in the mouth, filling it with meaty richness. Three thick slices are partnered by pointy florets of Romanesco broccoli and fabulous Savoy cabbage that tastes as if it’s been cooked in the juices from the pork. A nice, authentic dish, and it only costs £12. The tagliatelle with wild boar ragù isn’t the easy pile of Scottish mince it could so easily be. Instead it seems to have been made from braised meat broken down until it makes a luscious sauce. Once again the cooking of the egg pasta is spot-on. Each mouthful encourages you to eat another.

Our desserts – lemon curd meringue with strawberries, and pistachio tiramisù with hazelnut croccante – are fresh and relatively straightforward, if not exciting. Several of the toothsome daytime options I spotted earlier when I dropped in to book a table appeal to me more, but they’re not on offer this evening. So that means repeat visits to taste my way through the full range. Apologies in advance if I’m seen loitering on Easter Road, but I have unfinished business at Polentoni.