Ciao Italia – Layered Polenta Pie with Mushrooms and Sausage

I’m a sucker for easy Italian food recipes – I mean, I am Italian after all. That said, I haven’t had traditional pasta since the day that I learned I have a gluten sensitivity. Let me tell you how much of a damper that put on my cucina libertà (excuse the bastardization – I haven’t spoken Italian since my grandfather died when I was five).

Since that fateful day I’ve scoured cookbooks and the internet looking for gluten free Italian recipes – and I discovered something I wasn’t really aware of before: Italian cooking is in fact not all about pasta. Who knew?

Um, Duh?

Before you go getting all judgy on my naivety, let me explain that once my grandfather died, I didn’t have any contact with my Italian family for almost 30 years. No one’s really sure why that happened, but they’ve recently tracked me down via Facebook and now we’re in the process of getting to know each other (hello Stiavetti clan!

Simple, Easy Italian Recipes

Now that I’ve gone off on a semi-emo tangent, let me bring it back home. Lately I’ve been craving some serious Italian food, and after my discovery a few years ago that Italian cooking was far more than the sum of its noodles, I’ve made it my personal quest to understand what Italian food really is.

After years of digging, cooking and eating, I’ve learned that Italian cooking comes down to two priorities: fresh and simple. Fresh, meaning the freshest in meats, herbs and vegetables, and simple in that a truly Italian recipe is not going to be laden down with a long list of ingredients. For the most part, the predominant style of Italian cooking was constructed out of necessity – think poor country folks eating whatever they grew locally. There weren’t all sorts of extravagant ingredients in their dishes because they didn’t have them on-hand, and as a result, Italian food allows each ingredient to shine in its own way, unfettered by complicated superfluous flavors.

Whooo, that was a mouthful!

Enter a Spiffy Italian Cooking Show

As I was digging through the internet for examples of simple, easy Italian recipes, I stumbled upon a television show called Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito. I’ve seen countless gimmicky Italian cooking shows – I won’t name any names – so I was so pleased to find Mary Ann’s show because her cooking style is so simple yet ridiculously flavorful. There’s no pretension here, just marvelous Italian food.

Oh wow, I used the word marvelous. That doesn’t happen very often.

I’ve asked Mary Ann if it was alright to post some of the recipes that she’s featured in her Italian cooking show, and she’s graciously agreed. This is going to be three-part series, and the first recipe I’m going to share with you is my very, very favorite – a sausage and polenta pie that will make your heart sing. This dish is so good that when my husband and I first tasted it, we just started at each other in disbelief.

“Hey babe, this is really good!” he’d said. “Too bad it’s not your recipe!”

Ciao Italia - Layered Polenta Pie with Mushrooms and Sausage
Nutrition Information
  • Serves: 6 to 8
  • Calories: 721
  • Fat: 42g
  • Saturated fat: 19g
  • Unsaturated fat: 21g
  • Carbohydrates: 59g
  • Sodium: 1323mg
  • Fiber: 6g
  • Protein: 26g
  • Cholesterol: 108g
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Italian
An Italian cooking recipe with heart!
  • 2/3 cup dried Porcini mushrooms
  • 3 cups water
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 pound stone-ground cornmeal
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 pounds sweet pork sausage, removed from the casing
  • 2 to 2-1/2 cups prepared tomato sauce
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  1. Put the mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with hot water. Set aside and allow them to soak to rehydrate them for at least 35 minutes. This step can be done a day ahead.
  2. Combine the water and milk in a large saucepan; stir in the cornmeal and whisk it until it dissolves. Over medium-high heat, cook the cornmeal, whisking constantly until the polenta thickens and begins to leave the sides of the pan and forms a loose ball.
  3. Scoop the polenta out onto a lightly oiled large cutting board or baking sheet and spread it evenly. Allow it to cool. It is best to refrigerate the polenta for an hour before slicing it or make it ahead and hold it covered overnight in the refrigerator.
  4. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the water. Chop the mushrooms coarsely.
  5. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan and cook the loose sausage grounds until they are browned. Add chopped mushrooms to the pan with the sausage.
  6. Stir in the tomato sauce and cook for 20 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the porcini mushroom liquid and cook 20 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C). Butter a 9 X 12-inch casserole dish.
  8. Spread a thin layer of the sausage sauce in the base of the casserole dish. Cut the polenta into 1/2-inch thick slices to fit the pan and make a layer in the casserole over the sauce. Spread more sauce over the polenta and sprinkle with some of the cheese.
  9. Continue making layers, ending with the polenta and sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese and dot with the butter.
  10. Bake until the cheese is nicely browned and the casserole is hot, about 25 to 30 minutes.
  11. Let the casserole stand for about 5 minutes before cutting.
Nutrition analysis is based on 8 servings


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Comments from other ninjas:

  1. Josh says

    That looks great, we are in love with Italian cooking and it’s nice to see something besides pasta! (not that we don’t love pasta, it’s just nice for a change)

    • steph says

      Totally, right? As a person who can’t eat gluten, it was liberating to learn that Italian food isn’t just noodles!

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart says

    Polenta is always a winner. Since I too come from a big Italian family, I can also recommend a nice breakfast option. I’ll send you a link via email. My photos aren’t as pretty, though. Maybe we could do a Guest Blog/Swap some day, if you would like to muse about dogs. BUT, I do have a blog category I call “Foodie Tangent,” so that’s an option too.

    • steph says

      I used to hate polenta (what kid likes to eat something called “grits” 😉 but now I adore it, especially with a little butter and cheese. Yum!

  3. Meredith Resnick - The Writer's [Inner] Journey says

    I love Italian cooking. I’m wondering though, could this be prepared with a meatless ground instead of the sausage? I’m guessing it could.

    • steph says

      Sure thing, my dear. Before I was gluten free I used soyrizo or TVP for things like this and they turned out beautifully. If you do try them out, please report back and let me know how it worked out!

  4. Kerry Dexter says

    good to hear about the vegetarian option — though i might just try onion and peppers instead. I appreciate the pictures, too — made polenta before and happy to say it did look like this, but have only done it twice so not quite sure.

    and will you get back in touch with your Italian language skills? that’d be fun, I think.

    • steph says

      Kerry, if you try a veg version please report back and let me know how it goes! As for Italian, I really need to get out to Europe. I learn so much better when immersed in a language.

      My grandfather’s family is from a tiny town in Tuscany, and that really inspires me to learn more of the language!

  5. ReadyMom says

    I haven’t made polenta at home before, but with your pics and description, I think it’s time to give it a try.

  6. Linda says

    That looks good. I’ve never made polenta, I’ve only bought the rolls. It’s probably not as good, but does save time. I bet the store bought stuff would work well in this recipe.

    • steph says

      Honestly, the rolls are very good too! I use that a lot when I’m busy. It tastes great and makes for a quick, healthy meal. You could totally use slices of the rolls in this recipe.

  7. Jennifer Margulis says

    We make a lot of polenta (often with mushrooms) in our house, and this recipe looks awesome. THe only problem is my kids are quasi-vegetarian. My oldest is a diehard and my 8-year-old is a vegetarian sometimes (unless the meat option is really tasty). I will have to make this for just my husband and me sometime. I’m sending him the recipe!

    • steph says

      Wow, that sounds difficult! You might try it with Soyrizo… per another comment up above, I think it would work really well!

  8. Sheryl says

    I want this! It looks so yummy. I’d personally leave out the sausage and double up on the mushrooms. I’ll bet I could eat it every night for a month~

    • steph says

      If you try a veggie version, please report back and let me know how it goes! A few folks here were wondering about cutting out the meat, and I’m sure they’d appreciate hearing your experience. :)

  9. Jean Layton says

    This looks lovely! Anything with both sausage and mushrooms is always a positive in my book.
    I’ve made similar layered dishes with pumpkin pureem, mushrooms and onions for a vegan friend. But I laid the polenta out on parchment very thinly, that way I could flip the whole thing over to cover.
    Made it really easy to cut.

  10. Katherine Lewis says

    Thank you so much for a gluten-free recipe that I can cook for my Italian-food-loving friends. My mouth is watering already.

  11. ruth pennebaker says

    I think I’m in love with this dish. Please let me know when and where it’s being served — and I’ll show up.

  12. Lisa says

    I have an Italian-American friend who is starting a gluten free diet. She’ll be thrilled to hear about this recipe (and your blog) Thanks!


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