Think of Italy in New York City and most people will throw a glance to Little Italy in lower Manhattan, or what’s left of it, anyway. If you know the city perhaps you’ll point to Arthur Avenue in The Bronx or other neighborhoods where Italian roots remain strong. For the masses, a new center for Italian culinary culture has come to New York and it’s all housed within 50,000 square feet of market and restaurant space under one roof. Welcome to Eataly.

Words: Chris Henry
Images: Virginia Rollison [ main image ] & Chris Henry [ remainder ]

Sitting catty-corner to the famed Flatiron Building at Fifth Avenue and West 23rd Street and home to seven full-service restaurants, additional take-away counters, and a retail market selling everything from fresh pasta to breads, meats, and cheeses, not to mention more than 70 types of olive oil, Eataly is a food lover’s dream come true. Its scale is impressive, even by over-the-top New York standards, but what sets Eataly apart is its simple motto: Eat. Shop. Learn.

Oscar Farinetti, founder and creator of Eataly, doesn’t just want to sell you good Italian food. Eataly’s mission is to combine high-quality markets and restaurants with a message of education and sustainability. Customers can count on satisfied taste buds, but Eataly wants them to learn and appreciate the experience along the way. “La Scuola” offers customers opportunities to watch Eataly’s chefs demonstrate their skills and discuss techniques. Every dish served in classes or in Eataly’s restaurants is made with products that can be found on the shelves that day.

Farinetti’s concept caught on quickly in his native Italy, and since 2007 he has opened a total of eight locations on home soil, four in Japan, and one in New York. Chicago will soon welcome its own Eataly, the second in the United States. The growth has been tremendous; the New York market opened with 250 employees and now has nearly 700.

Sustainability means sourcing foods and ingredients locally, to the extent possible. One might expect, upon initial inspection, that Eataly offers nothing but products from Italy. In fact, while there is no lack of imported products, a substantial portion of what’s sold in the market comes from the local region. Cheeses may be made in upstate New York or Vermont, but they are made according to Italian tradition. Of course, Eataly produces quite a bit of cheese inside the store; more than 1,000 pounds of fresh mozzarella are produced each week for retail and restaurants.

Eataly is also built upon a highly sustainable business model. A guiding principle of la cucina povera, or the kitchen of the poor, harks back to simpler times when Italian families used every scrap of food out of necessity; waste was not an option. The combination of markets and restaurants under the same roof allows Eataly to avoid overstocking or wasting produce, perishables, and packaged items alike. What doesn’t sell in the market is simply made available in the restaurants while it’s still fresh.

“The difference is the raw materials,” says Dino Borri, head buyer in New York. “Everything that we sell here is here for one day. We don’t have a warehouse.”

With upwards of 15,000 daily visitors on weekends, this would seem entirely reasonable.

“Eataly is not designed just for foot traffic,” says restaurant manager, Lori Lucena. “It’s more of a destination. We must be doing something right, because this is where Italians visiting New York come to eat their pasta.”

Lucena won’t point to a favorite among her seven restaurants but she does call Pranzo, the weekday lunch restaurant, “the best kept secret” in Eataly, thanks to a small setting and a demonstration kitchen complete with cameras to let customers watch their meals take shape. Each restaurant focuses on themes of seasonality and regionality to keep menus lively and inventive.

“The restaurants were an instant hit, but the change in dining culture was something we wrestled with,” Lucena says of Eataly NY’s launch. “It took about three months to communicate our intent and show how the restaurants work,” Lucena explains.

With restaurant seating interspersed throughout the market areas with minimal separation from shoppers, overcoming a cafeteria image took some work. Each restaurant is specifically themed (pesce, verdure, pizze, etc.) and menu items are not available ubiquitously. And don’t call the rooftop birreria a beer garden. With three beers brewed in-house and menus linked to the selection of available beers, La Birreria is as much a restaurant as those in the market below.

“Eataly is like a gallery for food,” adds Borri. “It’s as if artists come here to ‘show’ their food. Yet, Eataly is democratic. You can have pasta for two dollars or pasta for ten dollars. There is something for everyone.”

Mangiamo!

Eataly
200 Fifth Avenue, New York City
eataly.com

From Issue 21. Buy it here!