Why not start with the glamour. The night before the opening, Mario (yes, I call him by his first name, I knew him before he was on TV or had written a book) ushered Petrini, several Slow Food people with him, and me to the pizza station, affiliated with an international chain called Rossopomodoro. He sat us at a table with Lidia Bastianich, Massimo Bottura, the celebrated (and nice, and wide-eyed curious) chef of Osteria Francescana, in Modena, and, to Mario's left, Gwyneth Paltrow. (I don't call her Gwyneth, and we'd never met. After she drifted off, the young Italian-born Connecticut College student between us, about to drive back to school to celebrate his 21st birthday with friends, said he couldn't imagine a better birthday present.) He ordered several pizzas, though he didn't actually start making them, as Ennio said he did right after the doors opened.
Zachary L. Powers
The wood-fired pizza ovens are storybook-looking, tiled in gold; they're now being manned by two Neapolitans who, along with many visiting Italians, are helping get the new Eataly up and running (most of the guest workers I talked to said they were here for a month, and would be leaving around the middle of the month). The pizzas are very Neapolitan, which is to say that they're cooked very, very quickly—40 seconds, Lidia said—and thus have very thin, soft crusts that by current U.S. artisan-pizza standards are undercooked and have underdeveloped flavor. This will be familiar and admirable to anyone who has gone on pizza crawls in Naples, as the smiling and enthusiastic Paltrow told us she had. I frankly prefer where we've taken pizza, and am off now to my favorite pizza place in Boston, Picco (I frequent it almost as regularly as I do Toscanini's, from which I write this while eating serial ice creams in an attempt to avoid Gus's dreaded coffee-camper designation) just to be sure. But the Rossopomodoro crust is both delicate and magically resilient, the crust lightly blistered and pillowy—Neapolitan hallmarks—and the toppings impeccably pure and beautiful too. I could eat, or more accurately inhale (they're really, really thin), several of these in a sitting.
I've never had cornetti, the much lighter Italian version of croissant, this good in New York, and seldom in Italy either.
Politesse prevented that, and also Petrini's insistence that the executive chef, Alex Pilas—whose work I've admired at both Lupa, my favorite restaurant in the Batali-Bastianich empire, and Del Posto—bring us several plates of fat spaghetti cacio e pepe, the simple Roman dish that, like all simple and revered dishes and especially Italian ones, is very tricky to get right. "This is better than I can get in Rome!" he kept repeating as he took more and encouraged us all to dig in. The pungently salty grated Pecorino Romano dominated, its richness cut but not overwhelmed by coarse black pepper; there was a slick of what I took to be butter at the bottom of the plate. When asked about the lasagne bolognese, which we found too rich, Bottura said discreetly: "I only talk to chefs."
There's really no judging dishes until a restaurant is tested in the heat of service, and I don't plan to for a while. But I can say where my highest hopes lie: with the fish restaurant, really a counter, that will be run by David Pasternack, who's a partner in both the fish market and restaurant at Eataly. His fish counter is plain gorgeous—the most exciting I've seen in New York, and more unusual and to me appealing than the meat counter run by Pat LaFrieda with consultation from the Eataly master, Sergio Capaldo. It made me want to take something home and cook--what a market should do, and the Eataly innovation is to give you immediate sneak-preview satisfaction by allowing you to order a quick plate of one of the fillets simply prepared or raw, right next to the fish or meat displays. I have great faith in Pasternack, a true New York original whose Esca, also in partnership with Bastianich and Batali, is one of my default New York restaurant choices; what he decides to do with such limited seating and equipment will be worth tracking. The one fish I tried was a beautiful bite of roasted branzino, and I got very hungry for more.
Sergio Capaldo occupies a role in Piedmont analogous to Pasternack's in New York: someone completely focused on the main ingredient. He has helped revive a breed of cattle, Razza Piemontese, and raises it in conditions any artisan rancher would envy. He traveled with LaFrieda to see the Montana ranch that is supplying Eataly New York's Piemontese beef (his own slaughterhouse isn't USDA-certified)—and, he told me, he's hoping that New Yorkers can brave carne cruda, the Piedmontese specialty of hand-hacked beef, barely seasoned, that he was sampling out on the day of the opening (he, too, was here for the opening and will be going back). For now, the menu at the beef restaurant will offer a more highly seasoned tartare. New Yorkers don't seem to be at the point with raw meat they've reached with Pasternack's famous array of raw fish crudo plates, the way for which was surely sushi-paved.
Zachary L. Powers
Produce isn't the necessity in New York that it is at the Eatalys in Italy, where supermarket produce is bland and from all over Europe and the Eataly focus on identifying farms is a novelty. On a Union Square Greenmarket day you won't need to go near the produce section except to admire the handsome displays. There are a dismaying number of bottled fruit drinks, even if I admit that a lot of Italian brands are good and worth trying. Dairy is also a challenge in a city with evolved taste--but Eataly is featuring an upstate dairy I didn't know, Battenkill Valley Creamery, whose website says it's a new business. High on the shopping list when I can check in and check out.
Being me, I made sure to sample every kind of the breads baked in the enormous fieldstone-covered wood oven identical to the one in Turin, and overseen by the same experienced baker, Alessandro Alessandri, a tanned, compact, smiling, intensely focused man. In place of the superb flours from Mulino Marino, the Piedmontese family that mills Eataly's flours in Italy, Alessandro is using flour from a mill in upper New York state that he said was every bit as good, if different. His breads are almost all made with natural yeast, that is, sourdough, and are somewhat heavier and spongier than New Yorkers loyal to Sullivan Street and its imitators are used to U.S. artisan bread to get used to. I was most impressed by a bread made with 60 percent corn flour, brushed with olive oil out of the oven to soften the corn on the outside, that was as spongy and light as focaccia—a texture I've never had in a bread with as nice a cornmeal flavor.
And being me, I had to taste the pastry—where I generally start, and where I think every first-time visitor should start, too. Here's why: I've never had cornetti, the much lighter Italian version of croissant, this good in New York, and seldom in Italy either. They use olive oil, not butter, and also whole-wheat flour, though they're far lighter than any whole-wheat croissant I've ever tried. Luca Montersino, the Eataly pastry chef, is the author of a book of 100 versions of tiramisu, several of which the pastry counter sells—a credit that doesn't recommend him, even if I imagine they'll be very popular. But he's really a master of viennoiserie, including the example I devoured: apple "strudel," in the shape of a croissant and filled, he told me, with hand-peeled and chopped apples with raisins and nuts.
In the tense minutes before the opening, Mario, spending two minutes downing an espresso at the Lavazza counter, in true Italian style, told me he thought the cornetti would be a "breakfast game-changer." I'll hold judgment on much of Eataly's grand ambitions till I can go back and back again—but I'll completely agree with him on that.