To say I didn’t know what to expect of Eataly would not entirely be correct. After the media deluge leading up to the opening and the months of coverage that followed, I certainly knew the concept: all Italy, all the time eating and shopping extravaganza. But like other notable “first time” life experiences, as much as you understand the idea, nothing can really prepare you for the actual experience.
I came at 11am to meet a friend for lunch hoping to avoid the notorious crowds said to have been there since day one. The strategy played out as at Il Pesce, the seafood themed restaurant, we had our pick of tables, the rest of the open dining area was empty.
The early arrival meant we had plenty of time to observe the camera crew and its entourage touring the facilities as well as to stare up at the large signs for Birra Moretti above the open beer cooler and Barilla in the pasta aisle. Even without the crowds, the cameras along with these reality show-worthy product placements gave a Hollywood, Live Nation feel to a gourmet food hall supposedly serious about food.
Meanwhile we noticed Barilla was not the only large sign. From our observation post we could see that signs appeared to cover every square inch of wall space. A poster behind my head was a lovely, clear pictorial of the different fish served in the restaurant along with a small note on where each is sourced. Most other signs however (and there are many, many of them) were densely worded such that I would need to have my nose inches away in order to read the lengthy descriptions of what appeared to be everything from the bios of farmer suppliers to a an exhaustive history on the origins of Prosciutto.
As my friend pointed out, even if she walked up to the wall where many of these signs were posted it would be of no use as so many of them were several feet above her head. Maybe Eataly also sells ladders?
The disadvantage of our early arrival was that even at 11:20am, the time we placed our order, most of the specials were not yet prepped. Our choices, though enough, were not as many as people who arrived at 11:45. For a fish restaurant that prides itself on rotating daily selections based on what is fresh, the specials are part of the draw. I felt a little cheated.
But whatever disappointment I felt being too early for the blackboard specials evaporated after one bite of fish. I have eaten chef David Pasternak’s octopus in the past and knew better than to pass up the Puglia-themed special-of-the-month: tender grilled octopus with summer beans and red wine vinegar. A whole pan seared flounder was a vision in crispy brown skin, accompanied by molten sweet black figs, a small pile of toasted hazelnuts and pine nuts, and sprigs of tarragon.
The “Learn” component to Eataly’s mission- “Eat. Shop. Learn.”- apparently extends beyond wordy signs to pedantic servers. Our server expertly described specials but also told my companion and I no less than three times that “crudo is like sashimi only better”. My thought on all three occasions was that if someone is in Eataly and knows what sashimi is they probably know what crudo is too.
Annoying waiter aside, one cannot fault the chef or the fish because the trio crudo of the day was beyond reproach. Most sashimi let along crudo wouldn’t compare to the quality of that at Il Pesce.
Having Eaten well, and Learned, well, not much, I set out to explore the “Shop” element of Eataly. Fortified by a rather excellent cappuccino from Caffe Lavazza, Eataly’s espresso bar, I made my way through the sparkly aisles. Focusing my eyes so as to avoid the distracting signs I saw delicious cured meats, rare mushrooms, brightly colored housewares, and ethereal confections. But in the end, I left empty handed. It was all a little much. I didn’t know what, if anything, was worth buying here that I could not find at other specialty markets nearer my apartment.
I came in to Eataly wide-eyed and expectant, I left slightly confused and over-whelmed but strangely satisfied. For my first time, that’s not a bad result at all.