Food Merchandising: From Art to Spectacle, Chapter Two - Mario Batali Introduces Eataly to New York in the Toy Building (Fifth & 23rd)
Giorgio Deluca had his Italian inspiration for a glorious food market; it was Peck in Milan, Mario Batali, seen above at Eataly New York, found his model at Eataly, a group of six food store / restaurants in Asti, Bologna, Milano, Monticello, Pinerolo and Turin. The first Eataly opened in Turin on Janaury 26, 2007. Outside Italy, in addition to New York, there is an Eataly in Japan.
In proclaiming its philosophy, Eataly describes itself as the original model for a market in which products of the highest quality representing traditional Italian agriculture are sold, consumed, and studied. Envisioned as a multifunctional market dedicated to gastronomy, Eataly offers better products while supporting sustainability.
Eataly New York(seen above and below) is vast and variegated. It is a food emporium: a restaurant serving fish, meats and pasta, a bakery, a meat market, a fish market, a fruit and vegetable market, a prepared foods market, a wine shop, a coffee bar and a learning center. There is no question that it hit the New York "food passion" nerve. It is reputed to be the highest grossing restaurant and food store in this country even though it has been open for barely six months.
As such a long term Dean & Deluca aficionado, do I find Mario Batali's Eataly threatening? Absolutely not! Eataly, like Dean & Deluca, is going to create its own transformational niche in American food marketing.
On my first visit to Eataly New York, I loved the experience from the moment that I walked in the door. I entered from Fifth Avenue working my way toward the restaurant areas. In my path, I was confronted by a fifty-year old woman carrying a wine glass as though she were at a cocktail party. I managed to get a seat next to the service area of the seafood kitchen. I enjoy sitting at the counter watching the food preparation and service scene. Since I don't eat meat, I bypassed that one, and since I make better pasta than most restaurants, I skipped that section, too. And I got to know Alex, the chef, as he gyrated through his work. He told me that he had been a sous chef at Le Bernardin for seven years. A theatrical extrovert, he also knew how to prepare delicious food. I had a sensational piece of swordfish - cut as a trapezoid. It seemed strange, but it worked. The next time, Alex told me to allow him to make my choices. My first course was mussels; the second, sea bass. Nothing was overwrought - just right for me.
Open kitchens facing counters with stools are common in New York restaurants; however, it seemed to be different to me at the Eataly food service islands. There was so much activity surrounding food preparation that cooking and eating blended into the generally chaotic ambiance. Did the food suffer as a result? I don't think so.
Although I have never seen Harrods food court in London, it does not appear to have the ambiance of an Eataly, nor does the KaDeWe department store food court in Berlin - which I know.
For me, Eataly New York was "spectacle," a kind of theatrical experience. Cable television is flooded with food and cooking shows and their accompanying "celebrity chefs." It appears that cookbooks are resisting a downturn in the sluggish book market. With the plethora of television and cable cooking shows and the deluge of cookbooks, food preparation is now viewed in a different light - less as art and more as spectacle. In this sense, Eataly becomes a handmaiden to all of the spectacles associated with food preparation and marketing hype. Does this mean that food as spectacle is better or worse than it was in the heyday of food as art? Not at all. It is just different.
Now to my prediction. The initial impact of Eataly is just being felt. Is it something that can be replicated in other cities? Even though there are Eatalys in smaller towns surrounding Turin and in Bologna and Milan, I doubt that it is a formula that will be replicated readily in the United States. It works in New York because there is a passionate food culture. To my knowledge, there are not many other places in this country for which it is so well suited; it might work in Boston and Chicago. I doubt that it would in LA.
This is not to say that there is no interest in food in LA. There are farmers markets in virtually every neighborhood. There are ethnic restaurants, ethnic markets and critics who evaluate them. For me, interest in food among Angelenos registers as cool and detached. Several years ago, having found myself in a Staten Island Italian neighborhood, I searched for a market. Much to my astonishment, I found a huge food market the equivalent of some that I know in Rome. How could this be? That's New York! Could I make an equivalent discovery in LA? I doubt it.
So what can we expect of Eataly's future? There might not be one in another American city, but we will soon see bastardized versions appearing in some of the tens of thousands of mall food courts blanketing the country. As legions of mall merchandisers search for the latest "hit," they will embrace the Eataly concept by serving franchised junk food that most of its consumers will not be able to distinguish from the Eataly original.
In the meantime, Eataly New York will bring joy to those who dig it.