The biggest problem with Eataly, the new omni-Italian food emporium on Madison Square park in NYC, is that it is too popular. I have now been there three times, A Sunday, a Thursday and most recently this past Saturday. The place that it most closely resembles in my experience is the Östermalms Saluhall in Stockholm, an amalgamation of retail ingredient stands and restaurants under one roof. Of course the food style is different and unlike the Saluhall, which is composed of a number of competing vendors, many of whom are selling variations of the same thing, Eataly has a variety of areas each focusing on a specific type of Italian product. While much of the product at Eataly is imported from Italy, most of the fresh produce such as the vegetables, meats, seafood and the raw ingredients for the freshly made cheeses, gelati, etc. come from the United States. The quality is by and large exceptional and the food in the restaurants is very, very good. The difficulty? Getting to it.
The only time in my experience that I was able to dine and shop unhindered by crowds was shortly after opening at 10AM on the Thursday I visited. By 11AM, I was hungry for pizza and pasta and had no trouble getting a table directly. Within a half hour or so, however, the lines had formed and the waits had started. While the service was , as one might expect in such a high volume place, a bit perfunctory (a busboy tried to clear a plate while I was still eating from it), the food, including a lovely pizza Margherita with mozzarella di bufala and San Marzano tomatoes was superb. The paccheri with frutte di mare was even better. For those interested in the pizze, a good strategy on busy days is to get one from the Eataly To Go window outside on 24th St. Though there isn't a place to sit, the lines are considerably shorter and the wait is reasonable. The wait inside on the Sunday around 12:30PM was described at about an hour. Sandwiches on the Sunday I was there, including prime rib and roast pork on Italian bread, were tasty, although a bit skimpy on meat and a bit pricey. I was tempted by the raw bar for oysters or clams, but I'm sorry, $30 for a dozen littlenecks on the half shell is a little too expensive. The same price applied to the oysters. While still expensive, I can understand the pricing a little more given the pressure on oyster pricing after the Gulf oil spill. Over all, the quality of the ready to eat food at Eataly is very good and would make a very worthwhile interlude while shopping if and when the crowds calm down a bit.
A bit more accessible, time and price wise, are the sweets and coffee located just off the entrance on Fifth Avenue. The gelati were particularly superb. The pistachio was simply extraordinary, while the fig tasted like I was eating them right off the tree. I was thrilled to discover that the milk for the dairy products made at Eataly, including the gelati and the mozzarella, actually come from the Dairy farm in Washington County, N.Y. where we get our milk from, Battenkill Valley Creamery.
The mozzarella, made continuously in the center hall, has improved in taste over the few weeks since I first visited the market. While never bad, it has ratcheted up in that time, to the point that it is now starting to rival some of the better mozzarelle in the City.
The pasta selection is extraordinary. From a wide variety of freshly made pastas to the cornucopia of imported Italian brands, including the original Italian Barilla, the quality is superb and the prices surprisingly reasonable. The only bafflement for me, was the relatively paltry selection of flat dry pastas such as tagliatelle, fettucine and pappardelle, some of my favorites. Most of the brands were previously unknown to me, but so far, I have tried a few different ones and each has been excellent. Most of the package sizes are in the 500g range, though some are full kilos and others are 250g.
The meat counter is truly beautiful with excellent quality meats including a variety of beef, pork, veal and lamb. I bought some Piemontese beefsteaks from Montana this past weekend, cooked them in the CVap to 125ºF and finished them in a cast-iron griddle pan. Very lean to start, they were surprisingly tender and amazingly flavorful. While not inexpensive, they were truly superb and worth every cent.
The seafood display is amongst the best that I have seen in the USA in terms of variety, however, the quality and freshness appeared to vary. nevertheless, an astute shopper can get some marvelous seafood here that may be otherwise difficult to procure. Of course, as with all quality seafood nowadays, the prices can sometimes leave one gasping for air. The Florida rock shrimp I bought this past weekend, however, were relatively reasonably priced, immaculate and perfect for a ceviche with mango, cilantro, lime, cipolline onion and diced red chile.
The produce section, which even includes its own "vegetable butcher" at no additional cost, maintains some beautiful produce and fruit. While a good portion of it is not particularly Italian, that did not keep me from drooling. The mushroom section with matsutakes, French bluefoot mushrooms, fresh porcini and fresh truffles amongst other varieties was particularly enticing. The mango I purchased to use in my ceviche was at the perfect stage of ripeness.
This incredible emporium has more than just food. It also includes some associated products such as kitchen ware by Italian design companies such as a personal favorite, Guzzini as well as Alessi and others, books and more. The selection of Italian beverages, alcoholic and non is also exceptional. In addition to all of the food, drink, wares and restaurants available, Eataly also intends to become something of a cultural icon in the city, hosting cooking classes and special events such as the upcoming Identita Golose in New York.
Eataly was originally founded in Turin, Italy by Oscar Farinetti in conjunction with Slow Food, the International food related organization started in Italy by Carlo Petrini (more on Carlo Petrini and Slow Food to come soon). Along with Farinetti and his group (Eatly NY is managed by Farinetti's son), partners in Eataly NY include Mario Batalli and Joe and Lidia Bastianich. The objective of the market and Slow Food is to highlight top quality food and make it as accessible as possible. Though the market food isn't being given away, considering the quality, most of it is priced as accessibly as it reasonably could be. The restaurant fare, given that it is basically a glorified mall food court, is a bit of a different story. While the quality of the food itself is still good, the overall value of the experience, including the prices, service, the waits and the generally cramped nature is reduced and at the moment generally not worth it.
There is much to be said for this incredible market. As it stands now, with customers often times having to line up simply to get into the building, it is too crowded and busy to be fully enjoyable. Hopefully, as the novelty wears off, the crowds will dissipate to the point that it can be both a successful business and a totally enjoyable experience.As the dynamics of the place change, the value quotient likely will too, or so I hope. It clearly has a lot of potential to be a truly great one stop shop for dining and retail grocery purchases.
I hope you had a wonderful Columbus Day!