I’m suspicious of anyone says that they don’t like to go out for Italian food because they can make such food at home. I’ve had very very good Italian food at home (see: Sugar), but the best has always been when a professional is doing the cooking (see: La Quercia in Vancouver, Corso 32 in Edmonton, Al Di La in Brooklyn…). These people that I’m suspicious of are, in my opinion, too easily fooled by the simplicity of Italian technique and ingredients. A pomodoro sauce isn’t just tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil. It’s the absolute BEST tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil you can find. Your pasta can’t be Catelli, your cheese can’t be pre-grated, and if you’re relying on Safeway for the most part, you’re doing it wrong and need to visit one of the restaurants I mentioned. If you are making the effort, you run up against the problem that the best and freshest aren’t always easy to find. I mean, really, the window for good tomatoes is so small that it can be near impossible in some parts of this continent to ever get a taste. Please remember, “organic” doesn’t mean it’s going to taste good.
This brings me to Eataly, which I’m currently feeling a giant “meh” about. Rather than a mecca for Italian food fans, to me, it’s more like the place you should go if you need to have your opinion reset about Italian food.
I was very excited when I first visited Eataly last fall on a trip to New York. It’s a large market/food hall that started in Italy and was brought to New York a few years ago by Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich. It sells all manner of Italian groceries from pasta to bread to cheese to charcuterie to gelato, etcetera. Everything you need to make a delicious Italian meal you can find at Eataly. You can also find little cafes within that specialize in pasta, pizza, roasted meats, vegetables and so on. This first time was like a first trip to Disneyland. You don’t know where to look or where to go because your eyes are constantly feasting on the food that’s around you. And because the cafes are all open concept, you can’t help but look at what everyone seated is eating. As an observer, the busy and the bustle keeps you moving so that you never linger too long. If all you’re doing is observing, it’s a fun 15 minutes to wander through and then leave, thinking about what you might buy or eat if you weren’t just stopping by for shits and giggles.
If I lived nearby, I would likely use Eataly as my source to get some Italian staples. But seeing as I don’t, it will only be the place I go to get the really interesting dried pasta shape when I’m bored. Because otherwise, it can be extremely annoying. I’ve never sat and eaten at one of the cafes, but based on my visits as a passerby, I never would. All that narrowly separates your table from the bums and bags of the crowd that walks by is that lame velvet rope. How fun could that be? And if you’re at the stand-up charcuterie and cheese bar, nothing separates you. So, while enjoying your snack and vino, you’re getting someone like me, whose looking everywhere, elbowing you in the back and likely swatting my oversized bag at your legs.
I found myself on my second visit in need of lunch, so decided that I would get myself a panino and what looked like one of the most luscious pieces of bread I had ever seen. First off, that “soft” olive oil roll was anything but, and despite both my items coming from the bakery, I couldn’t pay for the roll at the bakery’s till, but had to go to the main one on the other side of the store. But the sandwich, yes, it could be bought at the bakery. Mamma mia. Eating my delicious prosciutto, ricotta, and arugula creation en plein air at Madison Square Park across the street, I was struck at how easily I could have made this at home with ingredients I could have bought from Eataly instead of paying for them to make it for me. But there you have it. Buying everything I needed would have undoubtedly cost more than the sandwich, meaning I would have been deterred and likely bought less stellar ingredients. So, buying the sandwich was the better deal, and ultimately, much more enjoyable (no dishes!). But, again, there are many other places* I’d rather go in this city to get a sandwich.
Stellar is the secret to Italian. Go to Eataly to find that out, then figure out if you’ll be making “good” Italian at home or leaving it to those who know how to best get stellar. My Brooklyn apartment is telling me it’s getting to that point where even boiling water will make the house too hot, so for the next few months, I’ll be trying to visit some of the those. Buon appetito!
*I can think of a great many sandwich stops that don’t involve bums in face, elbows, or annoying bags when seated. If you want a cheaper version of this Eataly experience, ride the L or 4/5 express subway trains during rush hour.