This 100% gluten-free Italian restaurant makes bread cry

As soon as you place your order at Polenteria, a pocket-sized Italian restaurant at Los Gatos which opened in July, you get a plate of bread. It’s a small wooden plate that includes slices of spongy, chewy focaccia and Italian country bread, pane rustico, with a firm crust and tender crumb. On the side is a pale yellow slab of salted butter and a whole head of roasted garlic, its top sliced ​​open to reveal golden cloves, similar to molasses in their spreadability. The bread is fantastic and it is also gluten free. In fact, everything about this restaurant is, but you wouldn’t be blamed for not noticing.

Polenteria chef-owner Yvonne Khananis tells me she delayed the restaurant’s opening for two and a half months because the team couldn’t get the bread quite right. “The bread had to be the s—,” she said. The restaurant’s goal was to cater to people with gluten intolerance and people with celiac disease, who rarely find purchases in Italian restaurants. Even if they can order a salad without bread, cross-contamination is a constant spectrum.

She and her team, including her pastry chef and longtime collaborator Oliver Ruiz, toiled over the bread, experimenting with custom flour blends for months to craft gluten-free loaves that could stand neck and neck with those wheat-based. Their secret blend (which is also nut-free) will be key to new offerings like the brioche, which will feature at Khananis’ upcoming gluten-free bakery in Los Gatos.

All that work for an essentially free dish for dinner pays off. Khananis and his staff say people cry at their table, overwhelmed by the experience of being able to eat good bread like anyone else. The chef told me that the majority of diners end up hugging her at the end of the night.

Theft of bruschetta at the gluten-free Polenteria of Los Gatos.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Part of that might be encouraged by the feeling of intimacy in this restaurant, which only has 22 seats. Before the pandemic, this dining room was the take-out section of Khananis’ other business, Reverence Catering. Polenteria was a restaurant she dreamed of starting once she had the time and courage to do so, and the lockdown finally made her pull the trigger.

The space, designed by Khananis, exudes a romantic, subdued atmosphere, with cushioned seating, white tablecloths, and tall chandeliers at each table. Including Khananis, there are about two or three staff in the dining room at all times, pouring wine and chatting with diners as they navigate the tight formation of tables. The space is tucked away at the back of bustling Santa Cruz de Los Gatos Avenue; the entrance faces the parking lot, so you have to really work to find it.

The rewards for discovery are vast. Start with the unforgettable arancini, a deep-fried day-old risotto appetizer stuffed with gooey cheeses and presented with a lemon-scallion emulsified butter sauce. The unbreaded exteriors of the three balls are stiff and crunchy, with the flavor of hazelnut and Korean-style burnt rice. If you’re trying not to load up on the carbs, the Roasted Tomato Caprese ($15) is a new spin on the classic salad, especially now that tomato season is on the wane. The roast concentrates and intensifies the umami of the Roma tomatoes, while a chiffonade of basil and a scoop of burrata keep the flavors light.

A varied range of bruschetta (three for $15) is another opportunity for Polenteria to show off its phenomenal bread. Grilled slices of pane rustico are hit with classics like chopped tomato with basil and garlic, and new takes that include a slice of brie smothered in spiced raspberry jam. I heard a table order all 12 selections, which doesn’t seem like a bad way to go.

Polenteria, a small Italian restaurant in Los Gatos with an entirely gluten-free menu.

Polenteria, a small Italian restaurant in Los Gatos with an entirely gluten-free menu.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

As the name of the restaurant suggests, polenta is in the spotlight here. The six versions of the grits-adjacent Italian cornmeal dish adorn it with various meats and vegetables, from venison bolognese with wild bran ($28) to an umami-heavy version with roasted tomatoes ($22) and gorgonzola cheese. The one that caught my eye included a woody combination of oyster mushrooms, trumpet mushrooms and beech mushrooms with homemade Italian pork sausage. A tangy sauce of white wine thickened with fluffy grated Parmigiano Reggiano formed a moat around the pile of polenta. It gave me the sense of comfort a person could get from borrowing a woolen sweater from someone they love and soaking up the pheromones clinging to the yarn.

On my visits, the only fault was a chocolate mousse dessert. It was unfortunately weighed down by an overly thick slab of hard ganache that caused the whole thing to crash like Wile E. Coyote under an anvil. Best to stick with freshly fried cannolis, which are better than most stale cannolis found in bakeries in the United States.

Salsiccia E Funghi (mushrooms and homemade sausage and parmesan shavings) at Polenteria in Los Gatos.

Salsiccia E Funghi (mushrooms and homemade sausage and parmesan shavings) at Polenteria in Los Gatos.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

After my last meal at Polenteria, I spent the long drive back to San Francisco wondering what we mean when we say a place has a “soul”. It was the word that kept ringing in my head as I mentally debriefed after the meal.

As I was driving north on I-280, I put on some music – Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu – to continue to chisel that vein of thought. In an artistic sense, soul is a distinctively African-American musical genre born in the 1950s and 1960s, its name referring to the innovative marriage of secular and spiritual styles popularized by musicians like Solomon Burke and Etta James. When transposed to food and other forms of expression, as it was later, “soul” tells you that something divine is speaking to you through the everyday. The soul is a subtext. It’s the idea that there’s something else behind a croon, a love song, a platter of tender, well-cooked greens; whether it is a god, a deeply felt sense of frustration, or an affirmation of mutual humanity.

While the term speaks to a typically Black American context, “soul” resonates across cultures, especially when it comes to food. Cookbooks like Chris Scott’s Afro-Amish “Homage” (2022) and Deborah VanTrece’s “Twisted Soul Cookbook” (2021) expand the soul food repertoire with recipes for oyster-stuffed Italian spaetzle and arancini, while non-black authors like Hsiao-Chung Chou and Tadashi Ono have used the label to describe comfort food from their own cultural cuisines.

In a restaurant, I see soul as the feeling, as a diner, of witnessing something honest and meaningful, with a greater purpose behind it. Conversely, a soulless place might be one that obstructs this honest view with layers of artifice, or none at all. At Polenteria, there was a transparency, a candor that really touched me, and it started with the bread plate. It’s daily, yes, but obviously heavy with intention and feeling.

Cannolis at Polenteria in Los Gatos.

Cannolis at Polenteria in Los Gatos.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Although I’m not gluten intolerant, I know how difficult most restaurants can be for people who are: you have to be constantly on your toes, asking questions about every item on the menu while probably feeling like a complete gadfly doing it. . This underlies the disturbing but very real possibility that something you eat – something that is meant to support you – could hurt you. The magic of a place like Polenteria is that it allows these people to feel confident again. It takes a lot of soul to do that.

Polenteria

10 Victory Lane, Los Gatos. 408-884-8370 or https://www.polenteria.com

Hours: 5-9pm Wednesday-Sunday; 10am-2pm Friday-Sunday

Accessibility: Can be crowded for wheelchair access to tables. Separate toilets outside the restaurant. Paper menus.

Noise level: Moderate

Meal for two, excluding drinks: $60-$80

What to order: Arancini, eggplant parmesan ($27), sausage and mushroom polenta, cannoli

Meatless options: The majority of the menu is vegetarian.

Drinks : Full bar. Classic skinny cocktails.

Transportation: Free public car park.

Best practices: Reservation strongly recommended as it is a small restaurant.

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