Our Shopping in New York series makes its return with a bang: the grand opening of Eataly, the Turin-based food behemoth brought to American in part by Mario Batali and the Bastianichs (both Lidia and her son Joe). Michael knew that it was a question of when, not if we were going to be there to mark its arrival; Sunday’s inviting weather seemed to be as good a reason as any to take a trip to the Flatiron District to pick up some Italian goodies for dinner.
What follows is a record of our initial impressions of the place–and for an extra treat, you’re going to get both of our perspectives. Please bear in mind that this is not a formal review, as a few more visits are required to give it a fair evaluation–this is just a recount of our first visit during its opening weekend.
Elizabeth: I was so, so excited for this store to finally open thanks to hearing/reading all about the original location in Torino from Diana Baur and Gina DePalma. They both gave me the impression that it was a unique and even innovative place: the opportunity to experience the whole country of Italy in one sprawling store, with a particular focus on the Slow Food philosophy. That said, the original location is not in the heart of the city but rather in an old factory outside of it, and I think the first issue that the New York City location has is that it’s just not big enough. Maybe it only felt that way because of the crush of people and the fifteen-minute wait outside to enter, but realistically how much space can you really carve out of any building along Fifth Avenue?
I didn’t let the wait fluster me, though–I cracked jokes with Michael (who was already visibly annoyed) and giggled at the adorable antics of two small children behind us who were entertaining themselves with sidewalk chalk. The notion of kids chalking up and down Fifth Avenue is one that entertains me to no end, but I digress. When the man in the suit finally let us enter the establishment (seriously, this place was harder to get into than [insert popular B&T club here]) we walked into a throng of people wandering around gobsmacked and slack-jawed in wonder, with no idea of where to start first. We walked by the Lavazza cafe, the panini area, the pasticceria, the La Stampa stand, the iPad charging station and the European ATM, all to get to the marketplace part of the establishment, or the only part in which we had any interest.
I hate to say it, but the marketplace really was a disappointment. I was expecting this lush, amazing experience overflowing with fresh produce (because I know they hired a vegetable butcher), a salumeria to make any good Italian American man cry, a butcher case filled with cuts only spoken of in The Silver Spoon, and a cheese selection to make Fairway’s Jim Jenkins green with envy. The produce selection was less impressive compared to what I find at Whole Foods, and I’m hoping that our Sunday visit meant that they would be sold out of their meat and fish selections, because they were also paltry. While the cheese case did look pretty appealing, the cured meat case was woefully underwhelming–Milano Market has a more impressive selection–and I felt no need to wait in line for it. Fortunately there was a takeaway section where we could pick up packets of freshly sliced ham and cheeses so waiting in the long line for service wasn’t necessary, and I can happily report that the 18-month aged prosciutto di Parma was absolutely delicious and the prices on par with what we pay at Milano, Westside, Murray’s or Fairway.
In fact, everything we purchased from Eataly was delicious: we followed the advice on the sign above the Vesuvia pasta and made a sausage ragu that really was a perfect match to the volcano-shaped pasta, and the San Marzanos contributed to a blockbuster sauce. Those purchases, however, were made because we came to the store planning to get components for dinner and didn’t want to walk out of there empty-handed; the shopping experience itself was not compelling us to pick up one of their baskets and fill it to the brim. The great details like the signs above the pasta shapes are not helpful in this environment because you don’t have the luxury to spend the time reading each one–we only read the one we found by utter chance–and it will only be useful when fewer people are in the aisles. The wine shop was even worse: I walked in looking for a recommendation for a nice white to pair with the smelts we were making that night, and the Italian gentleman who attempted to assist me could not understand me at all. If I go back there, it will be to get a bottle of Barbera di Nizza Monferrato–I’ll stick to the super-helpful staff at the Whole Foods wine shop when looking for pairing suggestions.
I don’t know if it was just the massive amount of people inside, but the most prominent impression Eataly left on me was a sense of cacophony. So much work was clearly put into all of the components within the store, but it was done to the point where it all felt oddly artificial. There was no harmony here, just an awful din. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe New York with its vast number of stores selling Italian specialties already has me spoiled, but I was not left with a sense of “oh, I’m going to come here ALL THE TIME” that I was anticipating. Another visit in a few weeks is warranted, however–the store did not feel 100% complete but opened anyway to take advantage of the holiday weekend, and hopefully by then the looky-loo crowds will have died down.
Michael: Before we exchanged words upon exiting Eataly, I was envisioning a great internet-based exchange between me and the Mrs., wherein we’d debate the merits of this place and I’d fire off a harangue, putting this ill-conceived, over-hyped, Euro-food nightmare six feet under once and for all. However, that’s not what’s going to happen.
No, although like the wife, I was not satisfied with my Eataly experience. Unlike her, I had far fewer expectations going in (until I saw the line of people waiting to get in snaking around 24th street). I didn’t really talk to Diana much about it during the honeymoon, I only remember her raving about it once to E and I. As the day of the NYC opening drew near, I kept trying to get a mental picture of what this place would actually be like inside, and each time it was described to me, I got a different picture in my head. I’ve tried verbally describing it to people since visiting, and, well, I can’t. It’s because it has no definite shape, it circumscribes no vision, and it lacks purpose (except perhaps the collection of tourist dollars; as E mentioned, there is an European ATM inside).
Again, I am not going to lambaste a store at length because I like to watch myself type. I will make two comments to articulate the sources of my disappointment. First, there was no pride taken in most of what was being offered. Perhaps this was a side-effect of opening before they were fully outfitted, but as first impressions go, this was a let-down. I’ll admit that the pasta selection and most of the canned imports were intriguing. However, too many of the other foodstuffs were offered, seemingly, not because the purveyors had found that perfect piece of produce or fish, but because “the market should probably contain some produce and fish, so… I don’t know… we’ll carry some.” This may seem demanding on my part, but I will counter that I have known many Italian market owners in my short life and each one takes great pride in every single morsel of food they carry. I did not believe that the employees of Eataly were excited about the food they were selling, as they shoved me out of their way to access the various aisles.
My second issue is one more general to food culture in general. Essentially, rather than put in the time, devotion and mental cycles to immerse one’s self in a passion or even just a hobby, slick marketers have provided the consumer with the opportunity to skip all that un-fun “make yourself a better person” work and just fork over extra cash to bridge the gulf between dilettante and devotee. Eataly does offer some exciting options to the true lover of food, both prepared by strangers or in the home, but it left me with the distinct impression that I was being pandered to in this way. It was like an Italian Food-related theme park, where cafés were plentiful, prices edged beneath the “gouge” stage and everyone can feel like they know about Italy and food and Europe and life for a few hours, all while having a nice slice of “preschiuoot” and a glass of wine. Let’s not forget that this is NEW YORK CITY; while authenticity does take effort here, it’s far from inaccessible. In fact, it’s down right common. Want to get into Italian food? Indian food? Motorcycle repair? Shadow puppetry? Google it and spend a Saturday getting your hands dirty. It’s more fun than shelling out money, at least to me. Anyway, until next time, readers, thank you for humoring our musings though they may have strayed into the realm of the philosophical. Cook on!
Bottom line: the shopping experience was less than pleasant, but the food we purchased was all delicious, thus requiring another visit to see the place (hopefully) at its best. So, readers–are we being too hard on the place? Not critical enough? Did we miss the point? Let loose in the comments!