Shopping in New York: Eataly (23rd and 5th Avenue)

The line at Eataly

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.

Eataly Melee!

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.

One of the many lines for food--this was for pizza

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.

The sign that shows you where to find the things

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.

Pasta Fresca

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).

Fabulous, overpriced cooking implements

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.

Birras d'Italia

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!

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17 comments
  1. Misty said:

    Sounds like a pretty fair assessment of your visit to me. I’m interested to hear what your experience will be like on a subsequent, less crowded visit. I’m pretty well obsessed with any type of Italian food, so I’m jealous even of your poor experience and especially of the delicious foods you were able to get! Sadly, I figure we will never have anything like Eataly in Alabama, but I likely will check it out next time I visit New York.

  2. I was so sad that Eataly wasn’t open when I came to NYC because the description/press about it made it sound so amazing and exciting. Obviously, they have some kinks to work out, and maybe that will happen. I look forward to a second look from you guys in a few months? Please?

  3. Tracy said:

    Artificial. That sounds about right.

  4. jana said:

    never trust the hype. with anything, you just can’t trust the hype. so sad eataly is living up to its name.

  5. gigabiting said:

    Lucky you (although can I gloat a moment that I went to the Eataly in Milan).

  6. I had been looking forward to shopping at Eataly all summer. I actually went there the second day they were open and had no problem getting in, i.e. there was no line outside. The produce was not great. I agree that there was a limited selection of everything. But everything I bought there, 18-month old prosciutto, burrata, was excellent. The only thing I would disagree with is your assessment of the wine shop. It was my favorite part of Eataly, except that you need to get out of the main building to enter it. The kind gentlemen recommended a cheaper (and more delicious) alternative to the $100 bottle of Tignanello. He was helpful and the wine was EXCELLENT.

    • Going during the week was probably a smart decision on your part, if only because you didn’t encounter any lines! I definitely want to give the place another shot (including the wine store) because I agree with you that the quality of many of their products is excellent–I’m just not convinced that the shopping experience matches that level of quality right now. Further research is needed to confirm or revise these impressions, of course!

  7. Did I really rave about it? I can’t remember that. I really can’t. In any event, it has long lost its magic for me. The one in Torino is too small too, and I hate chain anything. The fact that Mario and Joe took this place to NYC doesn’t really impress me too much. It’s a gourmet temple, like all gourmet temples, and for me that’s just not what Italian food is all about. I also think that SF sold out (a lot) in its choice of vendors. Farinetti and Company have a vested interest in so many of the vendors that are present (don’t get me going on the Friulli wine section. Can you spell Bastianich? I thought you could). Getting your products into Eataly as an Italian vendor? Very difficult.

    (did I really rave about it?)

    I agree with Michael. It’s conceptless free flow annoys me. It’s über priced and über cool. And guess what. Food in Italy is neither. This is turning Slow Food into hyped up, gourmet fast food. I guess I have been in the real Italy too long.

    (did I really rave about it?)

    Sure, the prosciutto is excellent. For God’s sake. It better be. But the prosciutto on Arthur Ave. is excellent too. Italy and Italian food is about simplicity and quality. And Eataly may be about the quality — like I said, it better be – but it is not about simplicity.

    • I think you did, if only in the context that it was something to see because I am a retail geek and M and I both loved shopping and cooking in Italy so much. This was also two years ago–think how the food world has changed so substantially since then.

      But you’re right–it’s not how shopping and cooking is done in Italy. I didn’t want to come off as a haughty snob and say that above based on a week’s stay in the country, so I’m glad a resident is saying it instead.

      We went back one more time and it was a little better–they had fresh anchovies, something that is very difficult to find here and the price was on par with what we normally pay for fresh sardines–but still, it’s not somewhere I’ll insist on visiting every week or something.

      • diana said:

        we are so much on the same page on this, Elizabeth. We are true Italian food lovers. You could never come off as haughty. At least not for me. (Remember, I have seen you throw wine over your shoulder that was intended for your mouth. :) I love those kind of bed and breakfast moments. Without them, this job would be much more boring).

  8. Kim said:

    For the record, I must have read this post four or five times over the last month, and EVERY TIME, I’ve been sucked away (like to a mtg or work duty) before being able to leave a comment. (My fault for browsing on the job.)

    But anyway, I’m very intrigued by both of your commentaries. AND the comments after that!

    I guess my question is – IS there anything “unique” that Eataly offers that you can’t get elsewhere? If no… then if it were me, I’d be more wise to spend my time at the “small shops” who care about their craft and passionate about their products. :o) For me, it’s in the little guy and the personal customer experience. Still looking for more of that here. Very hard to come by. :(

    [K]

  9. I hope I’ve waited long enough for the dust to settle and the crowds to thin as I am going next week to see what Eataly is all about.
    Because I frequent Jerry’s in Englewood, NJ ( me and all the old Italians in NJ looking for a lunch satisfied by amazing samples throughout the store) I have high standards. Not for decor as Jerry’s doesn’t deliver THAT. But, I do expect Italian accents, authentic food stuff, hard to find items and absolute deliciousness!

  10. italian foods are very tasty and most of their recipes are heart friendly too :,*

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