It's 4 p.m. on the last day of August and New Yorkers are lined up in the Flatiron District, enduring shadeless, 35 C heat so they can be among the first to explore Eataly, an Italian mega-market. When the doors finally open, the pandemonium to get inside is not just for air conditioning.
Aside from the pizza and gelato counters, the centre of excitement is the fresh-baked bread counter where one of the owners, Mario Batali, smiles for photos with an endless parade of bright-eyed fans. Though he looks slimmer than he has in years, he
is easy to recognize with his ponytail, short pants and pink-stockinged feet stuffed into orange Crocs. Elsewhere in the store are his cookbooks and pasta sauces for sale.
But Eataly is really about Italy, the celebrity chef points out. "We're sharing it with New York," he says. "This is our interpretation of what Italian culture is. We're not pretending to invent anything. It's all in support of helping people eat better, but it's not precious."
"We" refers to his partners, Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Oscar Farinetti, the mogul who founded the first Eataly in Turin in 2007. The food-centric foursome has worked together for two years to create a New York flagship store, assembling a mind-bending dried pasta collection, a 10,000-bottle Italian wine shop and seven café/restaurants on the premises. Manzo is a full-blown white tablecloth experience while other more casual counters are devoted to fresh fish, pasta, vegetarian options, panini or coffee. Surrounding it all are shelves of canned, bottled, jarred and packaged goods, fresh and cured meats, fish, cheese, fruit, vegetables, desserts and housewares.
"We looked at two or three hundred different locations," said the mustachioed Farinetti, his dark eyes roving the clamorous crowds, his voice hard to hear over the din. He is confident they chose the right one (encompassing more than 4,365 square metres ) to bring the Italian grocery concept to the United States. "New York is the centre of the world and the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue is the centre of Manhattan," he stated.
Whole Foods, step aside. Notwithstanding all the bravado, Eataly is the place right now to shop, eat or stop for a glass of wine in New York, for locals and tourists alike.
The Italians have a special advantage, with their own ATM, UniCredit Banca, dispensing cash without a service fee. And if non-Italian shoppers are so inspired, two travel agencies, Alpitour and Liberi Tutti, are on hand to provide information on how to be whisked away for tasting tours of the store's producers.
Fred Plotkin, author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, checked out the store on opening day and offered some shopping advice along with stories of provenance. He rhapsodized over a pan of focaccia with onions, which he described as "gloriously drenched in olive oil." It was invented, he said, by the women of an Italian maritime town, Camogli, who sought to prevent their husbands from straying by giving them bad breath. The scheme failed. The sailors, armed with onion focaccia, shared it with the women where they docked so they'd have the same affliction.
"Everything here has a culture and history," Plotkin said. "It's not just food products."
To illustrate his point, he picked up a bag of Ligurian Croxetti pasta, shaped like coins and imprinted with crosses. "This pasta was invented in the 11th century during the Crusades, when the soldiers took along dried pasta to the Middle East," he said. "The crosses made them remember the purpose of their journey."
At the cheese counter, Plotkin enthused over Piedmont-made La Tur ("intensively creamy and fragrant"), Brunet ("pungently, messily, creamy") and his favourite, Raschera ("a great cheese from the mountains outside of Torino"). "You seldom see these cheeses outside of Piedmont," he said, clearly impressed.
What started in Turin may end up in Toronto. Farinetti is confident that the concept will continue to grow.
"We are discussing at this moment opening an Eataly in Toronto," he said. "It is possible in the next year, but for now, only in New York.
Eataly: open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; 200 Fifth Ave. (23rd St.), New York; 212-229-2560;
Special to The Globe and Mail
What you can get for … $1,750
Testun al Barolo cheese, $29.80 (U.S.) a pound
Dried porcini mushrooms, 7.1 ounces, $125.50
Villa Manodori extra aged gold balsamic vinegar from Modena, 3.4 ounces, $227.80
Tajarin egg pasta, 17.6 ounces, $12.80
RoiCru Riva Gianca extra virgin olive oil, 8.5 ounces, $39.80
Pitted Taggiasca olives in oil, 98.8 ounces, $88.80
Classic Cremona mostarda, 13.4 ounces, $16.80
Alessi tea kettle, $300
White dragon fruit, $9
Fontanafredda Barolo Riserva 1967, $900
What you can get for … $58
Barilla bucatini pasta, made in Italy, $1.98 (U.S.)
Tin of Amarelli Rossano licorice, $5.80
Domori Cacao Sambirano dark chocolate bar, $7.80
Saba (Mosto Cotto), the poor man's balsamic vinegar, $14.80
Lavazza espresso, 8.8 ounces, $9.20
Eataly cotton shopping bag, $1.78
Lidia's Tomato Basil Sauce, 24.7 ounces, $6.80
Vacuum-packed carnaroli rice from Falesco, 500 grams, $3.80
Biscottini made by Camporelli since 1852, 8.8 ounces, $5.80