I am known to often complain about Italy. I believe that it is a completely dysfunctional country, and I am not one of those who find dysfunctional things charming, quite on the contrary. There is a reason why I left it 15 years ago and I have no particular desire to go back. As my friend Signor Smith says in his blog Desperate but not serious, (which tells incredible stories happening every day in Italy), I believe that many tourists find Italy beautiful simply because after visiting it, they have the chance to go back home and live somewhere else. A place where 5 hours or rain flood what in theory is the capital of the seventh most industrialized country in the world, and where 8 inches of (announced) snow block roads for weeks is not a developed country where it is worth living, at least in my opinion.
Also, I find the attitude of most Italians towards non-Italian food extremely annoying and laughable. In a nutshell, most of them even refuse to conceive the idea that non-Italian food may be tasty and - God forbid! - even better than Italian food at least on occasion. And because they know that Italian food is the best there is out there, they see absolutely no reason to even try non Italian food. It is the fool's fail-proof argument: if you know that something is bad even before trying it, what's the point in even trying it?
It was therefore with great skepticism that during my recent visit to New York I went to Eataly, the 36,000 square feet temple of Italian food that opened last year on Fifth Avenue. The fact that I think that Mario Batali - one of the investors - is as Italian, culinary speaking, as I am Chinese didn't bode well. I was expecting a lot of cool BS, or the classic pizza and mandolino type of representation of the Italian culinary world.
Boy, was I mistaken: Eataly blew me away.
There is absolutely no space for BS in Eataly. There are no compromises with the fake logo coolness a' la FIAT, no easy fixes: just solid Italian culinary traditions, with a lot of genuine products of brands which are not cool, just genuine and smashing good. They even had spuma, the soda I grew up with in Tuscany and that it impossible to find anywhere else!
Of course the fact that Batali and the Bastianich (powerhouses of Italian cuisine in America) are among the investors means that you will also find their branded products. But frankly, they are relegated far away from the center, as to say "hey, we need to put them here, because after all they are paying part of the bill". But the 99% of the space is just pure Italy. The part of Italy that still works, that doesn't invest only in looking good, the part that seduces you not because it is cool or trendy, but because it tastes good.
You get to see workers making fresh mozzarella, or tens of varieties of fresh pastas in front of your eyes. The cold cut section made me drool, as did the bakery. You come away getting the feeling that whatever you buy there, it doesn't matter from which section, it is going to make for an excellent dinner. And that's no small feat for a huge place like that.
Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to try and eat in one of the many restaurants that are hosted in the supermarkets (a pizzeria, a vegetable, a fish, a meat place...), because our son Charlie Brown went crazy (maybe he doesn't like Italian food?!), but the plates I was seeing were amazing. Next time, maybe.
(*) Oone of the pasta brands that they were selling, at very high prices, was Garofalo, an Italian brand from Naples quite good and expensive. But you don't need to go to Eataly to find it: Costco carries it, and at much cheaper prices. And you don't need to go to Eataly to find Mutti canned tomatoes either, since they carry them at World Markets.