October 19, 2010

Eataly NYC

Sam Sifton, The New York Times food critic, wrote an interesting review of New York's new Eataly. Eataly, the food emporium originally from Italy selling Italian food but also the "the dolce vita" experience has now opened up on this side of the Atlantic thanks to Mario Batali and friends. I haven't been in NYC yet, but I went in Bologna and in Turin when I was in Italy, and given what I saw there, I think that Sam Sifton has a pretty fair evaluation of  the place. It would be wrong not to point out, however, how absurd this one line from the review is:
"...in a city that is starting perhaps to out-Naples Naples for pie supremacy, Eataly’s pizzas are not yet worth the time spent."
Out- Naples Naples?! Please, Sifton. That's just wrong.

Below the jump I've included my review of the Eataly in Turin. If anyone's been or has thoughts about it, leave a comment and let us know.

Review of Eataly, Turin
May 2010
(original post with photos here)
Eataly, overall ,is a good experience. The idea is certainly there and it is a good one, even if certain shortcomings in execution prevent it from becoming a great one. Eataly's slogan is "Eataly is Italy." That it is not. There is nothing Italian, at least traditionally, about a giant food emporium which simultaneously functions as a gourmet food shopping center, cooking supply and cookbook store, food museum (an underwhelming exhibit tracing the history of Italian fine food), cooking instruction center, and host to seven restaurant stations: meat, seafood, pizza, pasta, salumi/cheese, vegetables, and a cafe, as well as a wine bar, a beer bar, and a gelateria. Say that sentence in one breath.

The place is laid out in such a way that the first floor has the shopping center (much like a high-end Italian Whole Foods) spread out among the different restaurant stations. Downstairs is the wine and beer bars, instruction rooms, and model prosciutto and cheese preservation rooms. The best way to experience the food is to hop around from station to station sampling different dishes at each. Most are set up like a large sushi bar, where you sit at the bar and the food is prepared in front of you. Tables for a more restaurant like experience are also spread throughout. I tried three stations: cheese/salumi, seafood, and meat, and gelato for dessert. The dishes seem to be prepared in a fairly formulaic manner for the most part. They take a relatively high-quality ingredient, cook it simply, and put it on a plate with some baby greens, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Does this make for good food? Yes, nothing incredible - you will probably eat as well or better at almost any trattoria or restaurant in the country - but it delivers nonetheless.

First of all, it's fun to choose which stations you will sample, checking the blackboards for daily specials at each one. The atmosphere of the place is modern and sleek, a nice change of pace in a country that is obsessed with everything old. After deciding where you will eat, you sit at the bar and the server (which, along with the chefs, were virtually all women under 30) enters your order in a small hand-held palm-pilot looking device and bring you some bread (which is excellent) and water. The service is probably the most inconsistent part. The servers, though nice, are inexperienced (at one station a woman whose sole job it was was to deliver wine and bread to the customers did not know how to use a wine opener) and overstretched. They sometimes came off as rude, and almost always unprofessional. The "chefs" behind the counter seemed to also be unprofessional and I thought treated the food poorly. That said, the formula typically works, and the food for the most part is very good. Of the three foods I sampled - a burrata (soft cheese) with olives, a selection of raw fish, and a grilled steak - all were quite tasty, if still formulaic.

There is no "love" put into this food, no nonna carefully preparing your meal. This is not your grandmother's Italy. Perhaps the smaller outpost of Eataly in Bologna, offering a more intimate restaurant experience with better service and food all on smaller scale, but still the same overall idea, works better. But the giant that is Eataly (soon to be opening in NYC ) asks the question of what is food in the 21st century? How is flavorful, high quality food served to lots of people quickly? How do we make this food accessible and affordable to the public at large? Eataly does not answer this question perfectly, but it makes a strong attempt, and hopefully shows us a hint of things to come in this ever-changing food world.