The Problem with New York’s new Eataly

The Problem with New York's new EatalyIn late August, Eataly, a 50,000-square-foot emporium of Italian cuisine, swung open its doors. Located where Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street meet in Manhattan, Eataly became an instant object of affection for New York’s fooderati, who would queue for up to an hour just to get inside. This new-concept supermarket, founded in Turin in 2007 by Oscar Farinetti, is (predictably enough) in partnership with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Sam Sifton, the New York Times restaurant critic called it “a retail love letter to Italy.” Which sounds about right. It seems that disliking Eataly in New York is tantamount to being tied to a stake, spit roasted and fed as a snack to the hungry people clamoring to get inside this gastronomic monstrosity. But I’m willing to take that chance. Let me explain.

Rewind three years. I was in Turin, the handsome capital of Piedmont in northwestern Italy and in between interviews with occultists, crystal-rubbing psychics, and Holy Shroud experts—because that’s who one finds in Turin—I wandered into a silly named supermarket across the street from my hotel. And wow, did I have a different kind of spiritual experience. This was no ordinary supermarket. It was revolutionary. I quickly met Eataly’s founder, Oscar Farinetti, and he gave me a tour of the store, which had only been open a couple months. For starters, he told me, the place was sanctioned by Slow Food, which means an emphasis on local products and buying from local organic farmers. Aisles were lined with (mostly) artisanal Italian food products, organic produce, and miles of wine and beer. But the real game changer was this: in each section of this grocery story there was a restaurant that was congruent with whatever that department sold. Opposite the displays of iced fish, for example, was a long counter where chefs were serving up crudo and seafood-laced pasta to shoppers. Same with in the butcher’s and produce departments. In the beer section downstairs was an eatery with a menu that paired nicely with beer. Same with the wine section. And that old man sitting alone at a table near the door? He was a retired Michelin-starred chef, hired by Eataly to sit there and give cooking advice to any shopper who wanted it. Could there be a better, more user-friendly supermarket, I wondered?

Well, it turns out, no. Not in New York, anyway. I didn’t pop in to Eataly in New York the other day expecting to dislike it; and I certainly wasn’t there to write about it. I stopped by to pick up some food for a dinner party I was having that night. But I was so shocked by the disorganization and the almost hostile-to-shopping atmosphere of it that I couldn’t help but put the package of prosciutto back on the shelf and leave.

The New York Eataly has turned the original’s raison d’etre on its head. The Eataly in Turin is a super-powered supermarket with restaurants. The Eataly in New York, though, is a group of restaurants masquerading as a supermarket. You know those restaurants that put a cute little market section near the door just for show but no one actually buys those things? That’s Eataly but on a much bigger scale. Restaurant tables spill out into shoppers’ space; a claustrophobic “piazza” in the center of it all, is impossible to get through with your cart because of wine-swilling, salumi-nibbling diners standing around high crammed-together tables; lines for the seven in-house restaurants snake through the aisles, creating an unsavory shopping experience.

Eataly was actually founded to emphasize local ingredients and to highlight that particular region’s cuisine. When the Rome Eataly opens in 2011, for example, it will be a showcase for the cuisine of Lazio in the same way that the Eataly in Bologna does for the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna. But what can the Eataly in New York do, save for using locally sourced meat and produce? Serve I-talian standards like spaghetti and meatballs? And all those expensive packs of Gragnano pasta, bottles of pureed San Marzano tomato sauce, and blocks of pecorino and Parmigiano? They didn’t come from Brooklyn, that’s for sure. To be fair, though, Farinetti told me about the plans for Eataly’s New York outpost when I met him in Turin three years ago, a time when New York was still far away from the locavore dining craze that has swept over the city. Still though, Eataly’s carbon footprint is as big as the wheels of cheese and hunks of un-carved prosciutto they sell at the store.

But it’s not like many people are going to buy those products anyway. While people stand around and wait to be seated at one of the seven restaurants—giddy at the thought of eating in a supermarket (or something that at least looks like one on the surface)—the cashiers stand there, bored from the lack of customers who actually came there to shop. Maybe Eataly New York should just call itself what it is: an Italian food court that uses Italian food products as a décor. After all, the Union Square farmer’s market is a few blocks away and for those of us who still cook at home, we can get nearly everything we need right there. In the meantime, I’ll wait for the frenzy to calm down at Eataly before I go there to eat.