Historically, Venetians ate very little pasta, not as much rice as they do now, and acres of polenta—which is (unromantic as this might sound) basically cornmeal mush. This satisfying, versatile starch tends to intimidate cooks who haven’t grown up making it, but is really quite easy to master—and worth the trouble.

Like American cornmeal, polenta comes in yellow and white versions. The yellow has an intense corn flavor while the white—which Venetians prefer—is more subtle and delicate. And the instant polenta you find at the store? A perversion!