“A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see”
- Samuel Johnson
Ten years ago, I left my broad in college and headed for my semester abroad in Florence, Italy. It was a seminal experience that left an everlasting mark on my soul. Living in a pre-globalized and pre-Euro Italian city with your best friends at the prime of your life is nothing short of everything. We drank, we ate, we traveled and we lived in ways that we never would have imagined, and which many couldn’t even dream of. Over the years, as it all faded into memories and photographs, the lifestyle, the food, and the wine stayed with me every day.
As humans, the things that make a mark on our existence rotate through our minds daily like cards in a deck. Countless times when the Italy card came up I attempted to plan a return to my dolce vita. My life took me around the world, but for some reason, like a falafel without a stomach ache, Italy alluded me. Finally, in early July, I decided it was time… and life obliged. The gates of heaven opened, the clouds parted and my moment to return to my promised land arrived. The trip was booked, and on August 28th I left for 18 days in Italy.
Just as I began to anticipate an epic feast of salumi, cheese, and barrels of wine for bathing and drinking, that son of a bitch Mario Batali began an unrelenting marketing campaign for Eataly. He promised that just as I departed to discover my personal legend, he would be opening a 50,000-square-foot destination of all things Italy in the heart of downtown Manhattan. It would include pizza from Naples, Parmagianno-Reggiano and prosciutto from Parma, Chianti Classico and Bistecca Fiorentina from Tuscany, Artichokes and Amatriciana from Rome, an outdoor Italian Biergarten, and countless restaurants and markets overseen by an all-star team of celebrity culinarians. The nerve of this red-headed mastermind to tempt me with unrelenting gastronomic joy. Was G-d testing my resolve like Abraham with his son? Was there a hidden lesson in this torture?
Even more questions arose as I continued to prepare for my trip. Was this brash commercialism or were Batali and Bastianich honest in their intentions? Paris in Vegas and now Italy in New York—would this so-called “Eataly” serve as a way to promote and preserve the most beautifully simple and delicious food in the world, or exploit it for Disney-like commercial gain? Batali and Bastianich had always seemed genuine, but trusting a businessman with an unlimited supply of salted meats and wine is a fool’s errand.
Eataly would not hold me back from my pilgrimage, but it would remain in the back of my mind as I ate, drank, danced, and soaked in Florence, Rome, Tuscany, and Forte Di Marmi. Upon my return to New York, and after a brief detox from all things Italian, I began to investigate the Eataly. I jumped in a cab, with notes from my trip and a growling stomach, to begin the epic battle of Eataly vs. Italy…
Round 1: Coffee
I was never a coffee drinker until my first trip to Italy. I am not sure if it was the romance of sipping an espresso or cappuccino at an Italian café, or the smell and taste of the perfectly prepared coffee, but from then on, I was hooked. When I returned, not much had changed, except that now it was possible to find well prepared European coffee on almost every street corner in America. Eataly is no different than any of those cafes, except that it has a beautifully designed Lavazza Italian coffee bar and a specialized espresso section. Both serve delicious coffee and the same mediocre Italian croissants that are served in Italy. I would say that Eataly’s coffee is as good if not better than most gourmet coffee bars in the U.S., but the general ambiance and hyperactivity in this area of New York could never compare with the café culture in Italy. There is something about sitting in an ancient Piazza being served by a well dressed European waiter that can’t be matched by a student from FIT in front of a POS system.
Round 2: Pizza
For the Pizza at Eataly, Batali has partnered with Rossopomodoro, a pizza chain from Naples with multiple global locations. I think this was a wise choice considering his Otto Pizzeria, although an excellent restaurant, has mediocre pizza at best. I can honestly say that the pizza sauce on the Margarita pie at Eataly was the best I have ever eaten. The pizza at Eataly, as a total product, was extremely good and over time will definitely only get better. The only negative is that the sheer volume of customers coming out of Eataly will never allow this pie to reach the levels of the now defunct Una Pizza Napoletana, or comparable joints like Keste or Una’s replacement, Motorino.
With that said, the pizza in Italy is generally not much better. I have not tried the famous pizza of Naples, but my favorite pizza in Italy comes from La Bussola in Florence. It is perfectly spectacular in every way, and because the amount of pies they serve is minimal compared to the amount served by Eataly, the quality will probably remain slightly higher at La Bussola. But this isn’t Eataly vs. La Bussola, and overall the pizza in Italy is just aiiight.
Round 3: Pasta
For lunch at Eataly I enjoyed the Cacio e Pepe and Fusilli Ragu. Both were excellent preparations of classic dishes that you could easily find at any of the top 20 Italian restaurants in Manhattan. They were well executed, flavorful, and for the most part, perfectly seasoned. Once again I have concerns based upon the volumes of people being served in Eataly, but the most incredible part of the pasta operation is the retail side. Eataly has the most unbelievable selection of dried and fresh pastas you have ever seen. I don’t believe any place in Italy showcases this type of selection under one roof.
You can find some of the most sought after pasta in the world in Italy, but you can also find some of the most ordinary. Pasta cooked by a true Italian with years of experience and genetically superior taste buds will almost always be sublime. The truth though is that in modern Italy, many cafés are run by immigrants from surrounding nations who are serving boatloads of overcooked and under-seasoned processed crap. For the best interpretations of Italian classics, stick to the pastas of that region such as Amatriciana in Rome or Bolognese in Bologna, and find authentic cafés that have been doing that and only that for years, preferably in the countryside. You just might be able to get more consistent and reliable pasta in Eataly than Rome, but never better than the Italian grandmother in Maremma.
Round 4: Fish, Meat & Cheese
Eataly has a Rotisseria, Macelleria, Salumeria, Steakhouse, Ristorante Pesce, Crudo Bar, Formaggeria, Mozzarella Bar, and even more. There is absolutely no fish, meat, or cheese from Italy that you cannot obtain in some form or fashion within Eataly. The preparations are excellent, fresh and flavorful, and the ambiance is clean and beautiful.
Outside of the cheese and some very notable exceptions with meat and fish, I find the main courses in most trattorias in Italy to be only average. I know there are exceptions in certain locations, but please explain to me how you can ever maintain consistency in the most disorganized country in the world. More importantly, there is plenty of average (and a bunch of bad) meat and fish, and many restaurateurs and markets that keep their foods improperly stored because of antiquated food safety practices.
In terms of the Salumi and cheese, I am sure there are once again exceptions in Italy; but for the most part, Eataly’s selection is as bountiful and delicious as any average gastronomist can expect to sample on an Italian adventure. In this case, I have to say that Eataly, and New York in general, are superior when it comes to the preparation of meat and fish entrées and our selection of cheese and charcuterie is on par with the motherland.
Round 5: Bread & Pastry
Once again it pains me to say this, but I really don’t enjoy the bread or pastries from Italy at all. Most of the bread is flavorless, except for some incredible focaccia (which is also available at Eataly). As for the pastries, most are distributed from commissaries to tourist cafés, and sweetened with fruit-based sugars and flavors like hazelnut that don’t stimulate my vulgar American palette. Eataly’s breads, by Nancy Silverton, are beautiful, flavorful, and fresh. The pastries are on par, if not slightly better than their Italian counterparts. Bread in Tuscany isn’t much better than eating a sponge dipped in lusciously delicious olive oil, and it goes down like cement.
Round 6: Panini & Gelato
Mario Batali and company have made a valiant effort in this department. They feature a special selection of panini daily, along with pre-packaged versions for takeout. They also have a great selection of some of the most authentic gelato in New York. There are two problems.
Number 1: the Panini is nowhere near the level of the best panini in New York, which means it is not even close to the best in Italy. They “dialed it in” on this area of the store and understandably got lazy or tired, knowing they would bank off of it anyway.
Number 2: they have no Stracciatella gelato. It is my favorite flavor and available in all Italian gelaterias. The girl at the counter told me that “the chef took it off the menu.” Seems like a decision solely based on economics, in an establishment based on exposing the best of Italy to New York. This was done too early in the game and I am sure will be economically irrelevant in the long run. Don’t fall asleep bitches, because if you do, I will be coming for you!
So both Eataly and Italy have each won three rounds in this grudge match. Both are battered and beaten and the bell rings for the final round. As they approach each other in the middle of the ring, the salt of the cured meats and too many shots of limoncello are haunting them both. Like a French woman, you would think the native Italian would be genetically predisposed to these physical challenges, but that bitch (globalization) and her child (bastardization) are eating away at Italy’s years of culinary supremacy. No longer will Italy’s cities automatically provide you with Italian cuisine superior to that available in the upper echelon of New York and other modern meccas. So with this in mind, and an overly optimistic Batali in his prime, Eataly makes one last ditch effort to knock out his opponent. As he lunges forward about to put the final blow to Italy and end this battle royale, their eyes meet and in dramatic fashion Italy screams “Gratzie!!!!!!” At that moment Eataly immediately drops his hands, says “Prego” and walks out of the ring.
In post match interviews, Eataly is asked why he forfeit the match against Italy when it was right in his grasp. He looked into the eyes of the reporters and said, “When I heard his beautiful accent, it stirred me. I realized in my oversized red-headed heart, that I would be nothing without Italy, and by beating him, I would be killing myself and everything I stand for.” With that, Batali and Bastianich boarded a plane and carried Italy back to his grandmother’s home in Tuscany. They were greeted warmly by his mother, Daniella, and her huge family in San Casciano De Bagno. They began a simply delicious meal with copious amounts of red wine while they watched the warm Tuscan sun set over the hills. As they looked out at the unrestrained beauty, they realized that they can bring everything to New York, but the true essence of the Italian spirit will always lie in the people and places where it all began.
Danniella, Maurizio, and I…
Live deliciously and see you next time at Cocktail Hour, where more often than not one drink turns into ten and no one knows where and when the night will end.