New York Eataly: What the Frenzy's About



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.

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.