The Supermarket of the Future

An exciting new Italian bazaar makes Whole Foods look like the A&P—and it’s coming to America.

At Eataly, a sprawling food market in Turin that opened at the end of January, you can choose fresh fish from beautiful arrays on curvy banks of ice, or beef from rare breeds prized for their meat, raised on nearby farms. If the sight of all this makes you hungry, you can sit at a high counter—at two of the nine areas serving food within the market—and order a piece of grilled fish or meat, or have it as tartare.

You can eat pizza at a counter near the bakery, where bread is made in a huge, custom-built wood-fired oven sheathed in fieldstone. A young French baker named Rémy Coste devised the starters (no commercial yeast), and the bakery uses stone-ground flour milled 30 miles away by the wonderful Marino family at Mulino Marino, which grinds organically raised wheat, corn, rye, and more-exotic grains. The tomatoes for the topping are Miracle of San Gennaro, a particularly sweet variety of San Marzano, the best Neapolitan tomato. The cheese is not the posh yet inapt buffalo mozzarella (watery when it melts) but cow’s-milk fior di latte from Agerola, the echt pizza cheese, made by a cheese­maker south of Naples whose production is so limited and costly that only one other pizzeria is said to use it: Da Michele, the best in Naples.

You can finish at a wood-paneled caffè within the market, drinking espresso brewed from 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. Or you can finish with ice cream made of milk from nearby dairies and flavored with that Guatemalan coffee, or Sicilian pistachios—all products that Slow Food seeks to protect and promote. (I first encountered Slow Food in 1998; an article I wrote for The Atlantic grew into a 2002 book, The Pleasures of Slow Food.)

You can sit in a comfortable armchair at the front of the market and peruse the stock of books published by Slow Food, or read on any of eight Apple computers about the foods carried in the market. You can stroll past several educational displays on shelves, panels, and video screens; the most prominent of them shows the fruits and vegetables that are in season when you visit, and it leads to a row of marvelously fresh, locally grown vegetables in market-style bins. Many of the growers and food producers are likely to be at Eataly to deliver their goods, greet customers, and guide the tastings or classes frequently taking place in the market’s two teaching kitchens or in the big wine-tasting room in the wine cellar.

Or, like many of the ecstatic, somewhat dazed customers of Eataly, you can start with ice cream and coffee and then get on to the real work of shopping.

Though many of the goods at Eataly are organic, the greater emphasis is on shortening the distance from farm to market. Solving transport logistics took up a good deal of the three years of planning before Eataly opened. The extensive development was underwritten by Eataly’s founder and owner, Oscar Farinetti, a local entrepreneur made very good and a longtime fan of Slow Food. Signs throughout the market point out products that are in season, that come from close by, and that are protected by Slow Food. You can fill your completely biodegradable plastic shopping bag (it even has a use-by date, showing when it starts biodegrading) with artisanal food at prices comparable to those you would pay if you visited the food producer—and much lower than those at gourmet boutiques, previously the only other places you could count on finding it. This is fancy food—the rustic, carefully raised, simple stuff that costs a fortune these days (think of Whole Foods)—at prices nonfancy folk can afford.

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.

For a decade, the promise of rare and wonderful artisanal foods, wines, beers, and coffees from around the world has brought paying throngs to Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto, an international food fair held every other year since 1996 in the same development where Eataly just opened. At each Salone, Carlo Petrini, Slow Food’s founder, has announced the movement’s grand new initiatives—the preservation of endangered local foods; environmentalism; social justice for the people who grow and produce food—and each one has drawn hundreds of new members. Now Eataly is offering much of the Salone’s greedy excitement every day, leaving Slow Food to hope that international artisans and chefs will still attract crowds to its food fair—and that the take will still help subsidize Terra Madre, its hugely expensive new conference concurrent with the Salone, which brings together thousands of farmers and food producers from around the world, many of whom have never before left their villages. The idea of Terra Madre (which is not open to the public and does not sell food) is to create, through seminars, workshops, shared meals, and casual encounters, a new kind of network whose strength, Slow Food hopes, will eventually challenge the international food industry.

Purists long upset by the corporate banners at the Salone see Slow Food’s role in launching Eataly—it provided a team of veteran tasters and opened its address book of artisans—as the definitive sellout. Slow Food itself is taking a somewhat cautious approach to the collaboration. It’s strictly a consulting arrangement, Roberto Burdese, Petrini’s longtime right hand and now the head of Slow Food Italy, told me. Slow Food continues to forbid the use of its snail logo on any product label. If the great care Eataly has taken in choosing its products were to be compromised, Burdese told me, or its commitment to local and small producers eroded, Slow Food would not renew its current agreement with Eataly.

Nothing much is likely to stop Farinetti, an informal man with a halo of curly gray hair, a wide, open face, and a friendly but shrewd expression. I got the sense that the fun he’s having with the market would be worth the 20 million euros he has already put into it. And Eataly, he told me, with a daily average of 8,000 visitors, is already headed into the black in its first year. He plans to open markets in nine other Italian cities, beginning in Genoa and going across and then down the country. In each place he will look for city-center, not suburban-mall, buildings, like the vermouth factory he restored in Turin, and offer host cities free restoration in exchange for concessionary rents. He also plans to open a small Eataly (8,000 square feet as compared with 118,000 in Turin) in Rockefeller Center, with two restaurants, next year—a showcase for the Italian chain, with Italian packaged goods. He mentioned even grander dreams of opening full-scale Eatalys in the New York City metropolitan area, but more in the five-year than one-year range.

Farinetti says he made his fortune selling optimism. Actually it was appliances, in a chain of a hundred markets that grew out of an electronics section in the supermarket started by his father, a third-generation pasta maker. The chain’s witty, peppy commercials juxtaposed washing machines with flocks of birds symbolizing hope. But however great his success (he sold the chain in 2002 for around 500 million euros), Farinetti wanted to get back into the original family business. Even while in the appliance business, he had started buying restaurants (he now owns 10), and once he got out of it he bought interests in several producers he particularly liked—and a pasta maker south of Naples outright. Farinetti grew up in Piedmont, a friend and contemporary of Petrini’s, and like Petrini had a socialist family background; his father was an officer in the partisan resistance during World War II. Farinetti took a strong interest in Petrini’s Slow Food from the start, and has given money to the organization’s new University of Gastronomic Sciences, some of whose graduates he already employs.

His full-steam-ahead approach and relatively unlimited resources worry artisanal-food supporters. Eataly will suck small producers dry, they told me when I visited. (Practically every conversation I had in and around Turin began, “Have you been to Eataly?”) Artisans will denature themselves struggling to increase production, only to be stranded when Eataly finds a cheaper competitor and stops ordering, the worriers said; Eataly muddies the small-producer message by stocking some products made by big companies. Piero Rondolino is the owner of Acquerello, a producer of excellent organic Piedmont rice for risotto. “Lavazza and Novi don’t need any more publicity,” he said, speaking of two big and successful Piedmont food producers represented on Eataly shelves. “I do.”

The counterarguments Farinetti offered me reflect his take-a-chance optimism. He encourages producers not to promise Eataly all of what they can make, he said, so that they will retain a healthy diversity of customers. If small producers don’t seize on this chance to grow, when can they? Who else will help them dream the big dream? According to Farinetti, the cooperative that raises the rare-breed meat Eataly sells (a co-op in which he has a financial interest) was already telling other Piedmont livestock farmers that if they changed their feed to include more grass and less commercial feed, they could now have a guaranteed market; the co-op is achieving its first expansion after years of trying to attract new farmers. The point is to get young people to see artisanal food as a viable career option and to lift artisanal foods out of their elitist ghetto. Niche is the most vulgar word I know,” he said.

Farinetti, then, is making his own rules and having a very good time doing it. Yes, Eataly prominently features the wares of companies he already owns or has invested in (including the meat cooperative). Nearly every shopper buys a package of pasta—often his Pasta di Gragnano—and in the market’s separate mineral-water room, the most visible brand is Lurisia, in which he has a controlling interest. But his philosophy and whimsy are visible too. Most of the water, his and the competition’s, is sold in glass, which Farinetti (rightly) thinks makes it taste better. And he sought out and sells a fizzy, not-too-sweet lemon soda in a trim bottle with a finger-friendly crease near the top and a little glass ball at the neck—a drink and a bottle that had been out of circulation for 40 years, and a cause of nostalgic tears for many of the pensioners who populate the market in the morning. His goal was to create a bazaar, a casbah, and he succeeded. Eataly is drawing attention to individual producers with a specificity, completeness, and lack of dilution by house and industrial brands that no supermarket in the United States can match.

In the packaged-foods area a whole set of shelves is devoted to different sizes of empty canning jars that Eataly commissioned from the French glassmaker Saint-Gobain. (A line of nicely designed and cheap china, glass, and tools is sold in a separate department.) Why? Because the best food is the kind you grow and put up yourself. So far, at least, the messages Eataly sends are the ones everyone who buys food should get.