The Polenta Derby | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Polenta Derby 

What some people will do for a free ride to Italy

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By Rose Spinelli

During a very recent visit to Vinci Restaurant the tally was 39,396 Polenta con Funghi appetizers. Sold, that is. If you want to know what the count is today you'll have to go in and order one yourself. They won't tell you over the telephone and no, they don't accept bribes. I speak from experience.

Like most people, I found out you could win a prize for eating polenta accidentally. Vinci's was a neighborhood restaurant that had just recently opened, and it turned out they were serving up some pretty dreamy northern Italian fare. It was conveniently located at the corner of Willow and Halsted, and my friends and I visited frequently, slowly working our way through the menu. Then I stumbled upon the polenta. I would soon develop a gluttonous love affair with it, but not before it was hand delivered to my table along with a delicate gold-embossed card bearing a mysterious number, somewhere in the neighborhood of 9,900ish and handwritten with a flourish. A little sleuthing uncovered that, no, this was not the cost of the appetizer in lira--a common goof of which the waiters have long since grown weary. It was instead the total polentas sold thus far.

For the uninitiated, Polenta con Funghi is a square of cornmeal cut to resemble toast points. On it is placed an intermingling of rich and fleshy mushrooms--portobello and cremini--hickory grilled and served with a demiglaze, the perfect companion for a rendezvous with a chunk of crusty Italian bread. The presentation is so lavish, the portion so bountiful, and the taste so full-flavored and texturally deceptive, you'll swear you're eating a juicy steak. As appetizers go, it should win a prize. But that's another story. The important story here was how you could win a trip for two to Florence, Italy, just for ordering the 10,000th one.

This news caused a stir in our little circle. Unlike those cards you fill out in movie theater lobbies to win trips to Disney World, drop into the black hole of a cardboard box, and forget about, this was more substantive--I could eat my way to Italy! Since that first year when there were few rules and no historical indicators from which to gauge patterns, I've been told the restaurant sells an average of 15 per weeknight and 25 on the weekend. But I started showing up every night so as to better monitor the countdown. That I'd be noshing on a Polenta con Funghi was just a pleasant perk.

At the beginning my friends and I went primarily for the gustatory aspect. You might say we came for the polenta but stayed for the trip. "Let's go to Vinci's" became our chorus that week. Soon, however, the bigger picture starting sinking in. We had been approaching it as a group effort, as though if one of us won, we'd all be packing our bags. As the number got larger we quietly started coupling off.

While the count was still relatively low, I began applying myself, paying attention to the trends, seeing what kind of market value this appetizer had. To judge the scope of their business, I did a little research to see if any conventions were in town. I made phony calls for reservations just to see if they were booked. I renewed my passport. At about the same time, however, my zest for polenta began to lose a bit of its shine. I noticed too that as the week progressed, the race took on an unsportsmanlike edge. Though we no longer went as a group, we made probing calls daily to assess our competition. One friend-turned-dissident began sitting at the bar, reclusive and hoarding his polenta.

From the restaurant's perspective, proprietor and chef Paul LoDuca will be pleased to know that his staff remained loyal to the end, never once letting the number slip until plate was safely placed before customer. I was forced to try another tack. One evening I tried popping in and chatting up the wait staff I'd become friendly with. "How's it going? The trip thing pretty exciting, huh? You getting many weirdos? Bet you could write a book. Oh, well, it'll all be over soon. Must be getting awfully close by now...What is the number, anyway?" Smooth? They played me like a violin, all palsy until they'd snap their little leather binders shut with a clap and turn on their heels with a chilly "Order one and find out."

So I stayed and choked down another polenta, number 9,976. The next day was day five, what could be the final lap of the Grand Prix. Would they reach their mark this night? Facing yet another polenta had caused some weak-of-belly friends to drop out. The competition was down to the Dissident and one other couple. As dinnertime neared, the telephones started ringing. "Are you going tonight?" They were pretty tired of polenta, they said. It probably wouldn't happen that night, we decided. We agreed to take the night off and get an early start the next day. But all that cornmeal must have made us mealymouthed. They'll never know, my travel-companion hopeful and I told ourselves, and besides, why tempt providence? We waited till later, letting others order all the losing polentas, then ruthlessly, off we went. As the hostess led us through the dining room and we took our seats, we looked across the room and there sat our friends elbow deep in polenta.

It was also the night chef LoDuca was compelled to set down some rules and regulations, like limiting customers to one polenta each. Some scuttlebutting among the waiters tipped us off to a patron at the bar engaging in some dirty dealing. "I'll take all the polentas you've got," he demanded. It was the Dissident.

Once that tension passed, we began working the room, sneaking peeks at unsuspecting diners' cards to determine when to pounce and order. But yet another vexing twist developed. The restaurant was full and the margin was narrowing. Yet even though our order went in later, our number came up lower than the table opposite us. When we protested foul play a waiter explained that there were several computers throughout the restaurant from which they could call in orders directly to the kitchen. So while we were plotting to engineer the perfect coup, some waiter was horning in his own orders from another part of the restaurant. And when an order hit the kitchen mattered even less than the cook's scattershot method of sending it back out. When our polentas were delivered my number was 13 shy. Our neighbors' were nine and eight.

You may have guessed this story has a sad, sad ending. I did go to Vinci's the last night--alone. Everyone else had thrown in the towel. But I wasn't there long. I took my seat and ordered up. It was a lonely moment when I heard all the hoopla and saw the crowds gathering around table number 52. Some rookie who probably thought 10,000 was the cost of the polenta in lira, no doubt. When I left I didn't ask for a doggie bag.

That was four years ago. Since then the restaurant has taken precautions to avoid any flaps; now all the rules are clearly marked on the back of each card. Chef LoDuca tells me that because the trip is so wildly successful he's thinking about offering a similar contest for the person who amasses the most cards. If I'd kept mine, I might've won that prize. He's also started to offer consolation prizes for sore losers like me. I've since taken myself out of the running. Just about the time the 20,000 mark approached I'd finally gotten my taste back for the stuff, and I'd like to keep it that way. But I still keep an insider's track on it. I'm happy to know there are lots of other people who've gone off the deep end for a Polenta con Funghi and a shot at a free ride to Italy.

The hostess who worked the 20,000th tells me most of that night is still a blur to her. "All I can remember is the waiters running up to tables in a frenzy saying, 'Order the polenta and don't ask why. You'll thank me later.'" A waiter who was around for the 30,000th says one table kept pushing him to guesstimate when he thought the number would be reached. Just to get them off his back he threw out a date and even gave them a probable time. That's right, the lucky pests won.

According to my battle-scarred estimates, someone will claim the 40,000th in the next few days. That night the victor will walk away with airfare and hotel accommodations, crying veni, vidi, vici polenta!

Do you feel lucky?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Randy Tunnell.

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