Yesterday I was at the opening of Eataly, the event everyone in New York was waiting for with wild and unrestrained excitement—or so we hear from my longtime friend Ennio Ranaboldo, the U.S. representative of Lavazza Coffee, who gave us a firsthand account of what the actual opening of the doors, at 4:00, was like. I had to leave to get a plane just before they did (JetBlue, a.k.a. cheap flight), and noted the line that had been forming for at least an hour. All day, passersby had been trying to get through one of the many sets of doors along 24th St and Fifth Avenue, wondering why there were so many people inside, but they couldn't get in—a very New York scene. (At the very head of the line was the wonderfully funny Alan Richman, whose own account of the opening crush I can't wait to read.)
I came the night before to see Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, who flew in from Italy for the opening ceremony, which stretched from yesterday morning until just before the doors opened. So I had a chance to sample a number of pizzas, two bites of pasta, one bite of fish, and, at the opening, Parmigiano-Reggiano, many kinds of bread and gelato, and a pastry. (All this was free; there were two nights of press previews last week, with a wider variety of foods on offer.)
I'm eager to go back and sample (and buy!) many more of the goods on the shelves, and much more food from the seven eating areas. Many of the items for sale are my favorites in Italy if not the world, the ones that, pre-Eataly, I had to drive long distances to find. They simply weren't available anywhere else, until Eataly managed to conquer the makers' doubts about selling anywhere besides their own bakery, chocolate lab, or cheesemaking room—the implied integrity of its choosing Slow Food-approved foods helped greatly here—and to conquer the logistics of supplying its stores. The opening of Eataly in Turin, the first, saved me hours of car time, even if I missed the pleasure of checking in with the food-maker—the unique and, I think, the greatest pleasure of staying loyal to an artisanally made food. Eataly New York will save me a lot of luggage room coming back from Malpensa or Fiumicino, not to mention a lot of anxiety at customs.
In the first major U.S. article on Eataly, published in The Atlantic, I was nearly as enthusiastic as the throngs Ennio describes:
Eataly is an irresistible realization of every food-lover's gluttonous fantasy, paired with guilt-cleansing social conscience—a new combination of grand food hall, farm stand, continuing-education university, and throbbing urban market. Much like Boqueria, in Barcelona, and Vucciria, in Palermo, two of the few thriving center-city markets left in Europe, Eataly draws all classes and ages at all times of day. The emphasis on local and artisanal producers, education, affordable prices, a lightened environmental footprint, and sheer fun makes Eataly a persuasive model for the supermarket of the future—one that is sure to be widely copied around the world. The question is whether Eataly will bite the hands of the people feeding it, the people it says it wants to help: Slow Food, which is the arbiter and moral center of today's food culture, and the artisans themselves.
Those questions remain open, particularly, in the case of New York, whether Eataly will draw the same range of people and whether the prices of its largely imported food will be affordable for more than dedicated foodies. The context, after all, is very different. In Italy, Eataly is an alternative to mostly run-of-the-mill supermarkets: there isn't an equivalent to Whole Foods, and the idea of going out of your way to find locally produced foods for routine shopping hasn't caught on, whatever your image is of artisan-aware Italy. Italians, in fact, are still infatuated with big-scale discount supermarkets, which because of restrictive trade laws have luckily come late to Italy: luckily, I can afford to say, because I so prize the relation between customer and owner and the social fabric of small-town life that trade laws kept alive; unluckily, for families on budgets.
Surprisingly, friends in Turin do their weekly shopping at Eataly not just because of the otherwise impossible-to-find quality but also because, they tell me, it's less expensive than where they shopped before. Even if the new Eataly does offer different lines of, say, pasta or honey at different price levels, it will hardly be a destination for New Yorkers on a strict budget. There's the large and expensive real estate it has leased. There's the cost of transoceanic transport.
Eataly New York will save me a lot of luggage room coming back from Italy, not to mention a lot of anxiety at customs.
Also, in a city that has caught the locavore, low-carbon-footprint, know-your-farmer fever in a way Italy has not, the moral message of Slow Food might easily be lost as shoppers absorb the thrill of finding so much tempting food under the same roof. Petrini was scheduled to talk at the opening, but the tight timeline dictated by Mayor Bloomberg's presence at the ceremony strictly limited the number of speakers. So the integral part Slow Food's spirit played and plays in Eataly was nowhere mentioned or explained.
Happily, Lidia Bastianich, who with her son, Joe, and with Mario Batali is a partner with Farinelli in the New York Eataly, understands that spirit. So do her son and Batali, who is also to working to improve the diets of children of all income levels—a campaign now central to Slow Food, and one Petrini planned to underline at the opening. Environmentalism plays a large part in the Italian Eataly locations, which use shopping carts made of recycled plastic and reduce use of packaging throughout the store; food nearing its expiration dates is pulled from shelves into the restaurant kitchens, and the stores have close relations with food pantries and other institutions that take food donations. Petrini was going to emphasize his hopes that the New York Eataly does the same.
The educational component obvious in Turin—just after you pass through the doors, you come to several Apple computers with various links to Slow Food and sustainability sites, and there are two large classrooms, one for wine and one for food—will also be carried trough in New York, where a demonstration kitchen named for Lidia Bastianich will offer classes in, she told me, anthropology and sociology as well as cooking and deep understanding of the ingredients at Eataly.There's a nice bookstore run by Rizzoli, with a predictable number of books by the Bastianiches and Batalis, but also a good selection of sustainability-minded and Slow Food books. (The cooking equipment section needs to be rethought already: prices are way high for things like Bialetti moka machines that are easy to find and much cheaper elsewhere. I was very sorry not to see the handsome, utilitarian, cheap lines of glasses and plates Eataly commissioned in Italy--I've already broken all the glasses I schlepped home from Turin.)
The social justice inherent in Slow Food's philosophy didn't seem much in evidence, though. As I wrote in my original piece, Eataly in Turin prominently features coffee
beans grown on the hillsides of Huehuetenango by a cooperative of Guatemalan farmers whose working conditions, education, and health care are supported by Slow Food, the international food movement founded in Piedmont, the region whose capital is Turin. The beans are roasted locally, over a wood fire, by apprentice roasters in a Turin prison—in a training program created by Slow Food.
I didn't notice any similar emphasis in the New York store's informational posters, which are in both Italian and English, emphasizing similar themes, but I didn't have a chance to read them all, either.
Enough about ideals! What about the food? The glamour? The excitement? The beautiful Italians all over the place, in their beautiful clothes and speaking that unmistakable language featuring the whole body and especially their hands? Okay—I did notice an awful lot of that, too. Here are first notes on the tastes I tried.