First Fast Food – aka Polenta Paola – on Roman Road Market has gained such a reputation for her homecooked Italian cooking over the last three years, that she has now expanded her business to include a Whasapp ordering service. Order on Monday and collect your vacuum-packed servings of Osso Bucco, Squid with Vegetables, or Caponata on Saturday.
You will find Polenta Paola’s stall outside the old library on the corner of Gladstone Place, just a few stalls along from Andy’s donuts, another firm favourite of Roman Road Market. You can’t miss her her stall – it’s the one with all the people crowding around her vast casseroles of bubbling polenta, sizzling chicken thighs and slow-cooked meat stews.
The owner, Paola Battista, is never seen without her black chef’s hat, well-stained chef’s apron and ready smile, and has been a regular on the market for three years. She first made herself known thanks to her delicious polenta, hence her market nickname Polenta Paola.
Over the years her menu has evolved and she now offers a changing menu that includes everything from pasta, fish, meat, sauces and, of course, polenta. All her products are sourced from the best traders and shops around London, with whom she has established a good business relationship.
From Milan family trattoria to London street market
Batista spent 17 years of her life working in her family’s trattoria in Milan. Working alongside her mother, she learned to cook typical Italian meals and she’s always been interested in catering.
‘For me food is a real passion’ she says. Battista spent most of her time working on the floor of the family restaurant, delivering food and dealing with customers, but she was always most interested in what was going on in the kitchen. ‘I’ve always used to talk to the chefs and discuss new dishes that could be cooked,’ says Battista.
Then at the age of 32, she decided to move to London for a few months to improve her English and take a break from the 16 hour days working at her family restaurant. ‘The few months have turned into 14 years’ she says, laughing, who now lives in Deptford.
Battista worked at pubs, restaurants and in cafes before eventually deciding to set up her own catering business. At the beginning, she wasn’t sure if her polenta will be popular among Londoners, so setting up a market stall was the simplest way to try her idea. Roman Road Market was the second market she found a space on and so began her very own ‘open-air’ Italian trattoria.
At first Battista focused on selling high-quality, cooked polenta on the street. Batista makes it on own machine, which cost her £3000. The result is the silkiest polenta you can imagine, flavoured with Italian herbs and seasonings.
Battista’s deep knowledge of food (and wine – she has also completed somiliere courses in both Italy and London) has helped her build her fan base. She can turn her hand to vegan dishes and is careful not to combine meat with dairy as this combination is more difficult to digest.
‘The beginnings were tough, but slowly I gained my first regular customers who enjoyed buying meals they could take back home to eat with their loved ones’ says Battista.
Her food is different to most other hot food stalls as it is made to eat at home rather than on the market. This might sometimes be a disadvantage as most shoppers on the market want to grab and eat food quickly, but it has made her stall unique.
Her best selling dish is still polenta topped with aubergine and tomato sauce, though chicken marinated with lemon and wine is a close second.
‘When you feel too full after dinner you feel too lazy to do anything else, like for example have sex. My food allows you to do that,’ she says, laughing. The inspiration for her meals comes from her mother and an old Italian cook book dating back to 1929 called Il Talismano Della Felicita.
On her ‘days off’ she cooks meals for her customers, creates new recipes, reads books and looks for inspiration. Although Battista loves to experiment with ingredients and create new foods, her own favourite dish is rather simple; fresh salami ‘from the farmer’ from the region of Lombardia paired with Merlot or Shiraz and a french baguette. She makes sure to pick up the salami from her favourite shop every time she visits Italy, which is usually in January.
From time to time, she does catering at private dinner parties. ‘I get paid for cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, how good is that?,’ says Battista who is happy to see people enjoy her food so much they invite her to cook for them in their homes.
Order and collect on Whatsapp
Pushing her business forward, Battista has launched a new Whatsapp ordering service. Every Monday she sends out a menu for the following week to people on her list and they have until Tuesday evening to let her know how many and which meals they’d like to buy. People can then pick up their order on Saturday at her stall.
All the meals are cooked and stored in a vacuum pack so you can pop it into your fridge will keep for up to ten days. She calls this invention ‘an Italian chef in the fridge’.
The idea came from one of her customers. ‘He was on a diet and needed to eat more vegetables and fish so he asked me if I could cook something like this for him,’ says Battista about her food delivery prototype.
Cooking for more people at once is also convenient for her as she knows exactly the quantity she needs to make every week. This might be why she has managed to survive and thrive in what is a challenging and competitive marketplace.
Her future ambitions are to open a little shop in which she could sell her food and create her own delivery app. She is also thinking about changing the name of her business, and currently brainstorming names such as ‘Paola is Cooking’.
Whatever name she chooses though, we hope she her stall on Roman Road Market continues to flourish, adding to a growing portfolio of excellent Italian food options on Roman Road including Symposium, Vinarius and Bacaro. At this rate, Roman Road might have to be renamed the Little Italy of East London.
If you enjoyed reading this piece, why not have a look at another Italian gem on Roman Road, Vinarius.