Buffalo Rome: Mozzarella, Martians And Culinary Crusaders

I was staring, mesmerized, my mouth watering at a giant mozzarella. The elastic curd was submerged in a giant bowl of cold water in my favorite small, family-run specialty food store in Rome. The bowl was shaped like a huge puckered blossom. It sat atop a glinting counter at E. Volpetti & C. on Via Marmorata near the Pyramid of Cestius in the Testaccio neighborhood in southern-central Rome.

The archetypal Aladdin’s Cavern of gastronomy, Volpetti is a place of secular pilgrimage for savvy foodies but also for normal, food-loving, unpretentious Romans.

Dozens of hams were displayed in cubby-holes, the archives of porcine paradise waiting to be sliced to order by bona fide prosciutto experts. Jowl bacon and smoked pancetta dangled like headhunters’ trophies. Jars of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and slices of eggplant towered over the human scrum at the counter. Baskets brimmed with gnarled white truffles worth their weight in silver, truffles so nose-tickling that I nearly swooned of airborne gluttony.

Hundreds of fabulous, expensive cheeses beckoned: yellowish bitto or pecorino di fossa aged in limestone pits, pungent-smelling pear-shaped provolone with whole lemons buried inside, immense wheels of black-rimmed pecorino romano and flame-branded Parmigiano.
But it was the humble fresh mozzarella trucked in several times weekly afloat in that funny-looking bowl that held my gaze.

Ebullient Emilio and charismatic Claudio Volpetti saw me staring and smiling and they must have wondered what had gotten into me. Both are beyond retirement age. They still work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, and are passionate. They have trained deeply knowledgeable staffers and groomed an heir, Alessandro. And they are still top of the heap in the world of old-fashioned gastronomy in this, arguably the greatest food city in Italy, a city with the freshest produce, the best meats fresh or cured, the greatest variety of wines from around the country and the world.

To be the best among the best is difficult in the best of times. It is almost impossible in hard times when big box stores take over, especially when Martians with a spaceship the size of the Coliseum land down the way and spend countless millions offering bread and circuses and razzle-dazzle morality lessons to the famished citizenry.

The reason I was obsessing about the mozzarella was simple yet multi-layered, like everything in Rome, where simplicity hides infinite complexity. I have been coming to the Volpetti brothers for decades and always assumed they would continue to thrive forever. But earlier that day I had faced a crisis and had wondered how much longer the place could remain in business.

Why? I had gone shopping. Then I’d performed a private, comparative tasting of Volpetti’s trucked-in mozzarella from the Naples area and the freshly-made mozzarella I’d bought at Rome’s new Martian food emporium.

The Martians are the creators of a chain of high-end foodie shopping malls and foodie food courts called Eataly. There are Eataly malls across Italy and Japan and in New York City. They are coming to a city near you if your city has money to spend and a holier-than-thou attitude among its consumers.

Rome’s Eataly, the chain’s latest conquest, is the biggest and the best, a true “americanata” as the Italians say, meaning in this case a glitzy Las Vegas Coliseum of gastronomy, a four-story showcase with canned music and moving sidewalks where the right-thinking, well-off, trendy consumer feels good about consuming both sanctimoniously and with orgiastic abandon in clean, modern, sanitized surroundings.

Eataly Rome occupies a disused air terminal at Ostiense train station. It’s a quarter-mile down grim, semi-industrial streets from E. Volpetti & C. and the caper-shagged Pyramid of Cestius.

The terminal building looks vaguely like a postmodern Gare d’Orsay, the famed museum in Paris. Instead of Impressionist masterpieces, it is stuffed with hundreds of millions of packages, bottles, barrels, bags and containers containing everything edible or potable produced in Italy by the anointed friends of Eataly who are, needless to say, the very best in the business.

The Eataly operation is unlike other commercial malls. It’s a for-profit business, but you get didactic displays, videos, cooking lessons, wine-tasting courses, seminars, and lots of cheerleader foodie propaganda in the bargain, including a paradoxical, not to say contradictory, spiel.

That spiel boils down to the claim that Italy’s small, family-run shops like Volpetti are finished. They’re gone. Kaput. So Eataly is it. It’s no mere supermarket. It’s responsible and good, and you are good because you shop there.

For instant enjoyment and to make sure customers have fun while being converted to the Eataly creed, a choice of fancy or cafeteria-style restaurants offer open kitchens behind picture windows and views over parking lots, housing projects, and railway tracks. This is the quintessence of trendy, meaning the cult of the ugly and the edgy. There are two cafés, one of them also a coffee-roasting establishment. There’s parking out front for hundreds of cars. It’s a fine way to encourage Romans to use vehicles in a city not designed for cars and ruined by cars.

Everything at Eataly is certainly the best. Some of the eager, handsome or comely young employees at Eataly are probably also knowledgeable. The poultry they spit and roast before your eyes is not mere poultry. Those are coddled, range-raised birds of noble lineage and include guinea fowl among their caste. The fish are caught responsibly by fish-loving environmentally aware fishermen and are so fresh they’re flipping and sometimes die dramatically before your eyes.

The chocolates are sourced with the good of the cacao growers in mind. The wines on tap or in the bottle are made responsibly, some of them according to the phases of the moon, and sold with incantations like the True Drink dispensed by the Vatican across town.

Precious shade-grown coffee beans are roasted on site. Beer is brewed from pure, unadulterated grains raised with love instead of fertilizers. Bread is shaped by loving hands and baked before the eyes of beholders. All is transparent, performed by performance artists of food behind large plate-glass windows.

In fact everything at Eataly comes with a giant explanatory panel, a video, a song and a dance, a label, an appellation, an approbation of excellence and wholesomeness and deliciousness. The acolytes and high priests of the Eataly cult and perhaps even Pope Benedict XVI himself when he visits wear badges of the Slow Food movement, born in a manger in Piedmont.

After decades of quiet preparation by the politically left-leaning Christian zealots that many of its founders once were, the Slow Food movement has found its Emperor Constantine, the ruler who recognized the cult of Jesus as a religion worthy of the Roman state. The foodie cult from Piedmont has united with the cleverest of clever Italian merchants, a group who in a few paragraphs can proclaim all small family-run retail food businesses dead, and yet claim in the next breath that it is promoting and protecting small, family-run businesses that produce the products Eataly sells. The world of Italian gastronomy is now safe. Eataly has arrived in the Eternal City in the nick of time. Beware those who dare to question its infallibility!

On the morning I visited, the moving sidewalks linking Eataly to Ostiense station were broken. So with my roast chicken, mozzarella and coffee all made or roasted on site, and much else stuffed in eco-friendly bags, I lumbered underground for the quarter-mile of fluorescent-lit tunnels separating Eataly from the great marble-clad, caper-shagged Pyramid of Cestius and Via Marmorata. I headed home and, with a group of food-loving friends, set to work comparing products. We did blind tastings of many exquisite things from Eataly and Volpetti. The results were unsurprising.

Back at Volpetti & C. that evening I stared happily at the last ball of mozzarella floating in the funny-looking container. It hadn’t been made minutes ago on site by eager zealots behind plate-glass windows. Why was it more flavorful, firmer, more luscious and perfect than the lump I’d bought at Eataly? Ditto the other cheeses we’d taste-tested, the hams, even the fresh bread.

It’s not that the Eataly products weren’t excellent. They were. But the ones bought at Volpetti’s dinosaur emporium were even better. How now, things purchased at a small, quiet, family-run place, which, as everyone knows, should no longer exist? Perhaps the reason was as elusively simple as everything else in Rome. Here reigned spontaneity, joy, passion and straightforward business instead of canned music, moving sidewalks, picture windows, handsome young acolytes, preachy zealots, and vats of sour-smelling sanctimoniousness.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photo credits: David Downie]