Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or in the Southern United States) for the last decade, no doubt you’ve heard about the super-sized Italian food amusement park called Eataly, iterations of which can be found in (almost) every corner of the globe these days.
In sum, it’s a utopian hub for all good things to eat, where specialty kiosks exalt the many pillars of Italian cuisine. A pasta station here, a salumeria there; a pizza oven delivering real Neapolitan pies, while pungent cheeses from every region of The Boot compete for the attention of your olfactory senses. And of course, i vini dappertutto!
I recently visited the New York outpost of this wonderland, in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of so-called “Italian” restaurants in the United States. My excitement piques when I hear about a new Roman trattoria, or a genuine Sicilian bakery in my neighborhood, recently opened by a paisan just off the proverbial boat.
And I am ALWAYS disappointed.
I’ve come to learn that this is because the overly enthusiastic restaurateur from the Old Country believes that he/she is the one who will finally get Americans to venture beyond their stereotypes of red-checkered tablecloths, spaghetti with meatballs, and Dean Martin on the stereo. These newly imported Italian chefs are determined to share the sublime joys of mamma’s simple kitchen with the gastronomically deprived Americans. (Ragazzi, REAL Italian food! Mangiamo!)
So what happens next? By the second or third month in business, the chef realizes that paying his rent is an existential imperative, and therefore his mission to convert the infidels will have to wait. (He also has to admit that they’re not really interested anyway, sadly.) The following week, a complete rewrite of the menu. Alas.
Trying to maintain his initial enthusiasm in the face of disillusionment, he grits his teeth and proclaims, “Chicken Parm, Veal Florentine, and Sunday Gravy for all! Viva l'America! At least in this country I can make a living without paying the pizzo.”
Back to the original debate...
Is Eataly Italian?
The short answer to this question is “yes,” it passes the test with flying colors. However, not without a few caveats.
First of all, I noted ZERO Italian employees when I visited. Most were Hispanic, and my waiter was from France, of all places. This was disappointing, as it always adds to the fun when the contagious passion of Italians for their food is part of the meal service.
However, I did see quite a few Italian customers, maybe as much as 10-15%, presumably having been on vacation in The Big Apple long enough (in other words, one or two days) to crave the “necessities” of the homeland. As a nice gesture—or just to increase sales—the folks from Eataly have teamed up with Italy’s largest bank, UniCredit, to install a Bancomat (ATM) machine right in the middle of the dolci section, taking Euros from their Italian accounts, and conveniently dispensing Dollars on the spot. You may resume your shopping spree. Che bello!
Also disappointing is the decor; while lovely, feels a bit too contrived. There are plastic vines hanging from the ceiling, which I’ve never actually seen inside a restaurant in Italy. Then where are the cracked walls and antiquated bathroom plumbing? How about the loud soccer game on an analog T.V. with even louder table conversations? There’s too much personal space and not enough forced intimacy with fellow diners. You’d never have that much elbow room at an osteria in Italia.
But these are minor complaints, and really not complaints at all. Even if the setting isn’t genuine, the food certainly is, and that’s what matters the most. Genuine, authentic, regional, seasonal. Just as it should be. From the Eataly Blog:
“At @Eataly, we believe that there is no such thing as ‘Italian food.’ Each of Italy’s 20 regions boasts a unique cuisine that draws on the local biodiversity, traditions, and culture.” #eataly #cibo #italiano
Amen to that.
So yes, it’s an Americanized fantasy version of Italy, but still extremely enjoyable. I’ll go further and say it’s the best source of real Italian food that I’ve found in the U.S. It would be nice if they franchised mini versions of this concept into smaller markets in the United States. Personally, I think Palm Beach would be an excellent pilot location for this experiment. I’ll do their local marketing, and they can pay me in salame and mozzarella.
Alla vostra salute!
Authentic Italian restaurants are nearly impossible to find in the U.S. Chefs eventually give up and resort to an Italian-American menu of Spaghetti and meatballs, and Chicken Parmesan, neither of which exist in Italy.
Eataly is a gastronomic wonderland of regional Italian products and dishes. And while the ambiance is not exactly genuine, the food certainly is, and that's what matters.
Eataly is the best source of real Italian food from all the regions that you can find under one roof. Unfortunately, you can't find Eataly in every American city. Yet.