If agoraphobia is a fear of crowds, and claustrophobia is a fear of being trapped small places, then what is that particularly New York fear of being trapped in a mob of people, as at Macy’s at Christmastime? Whatever the name, this is exactly the emotion that Eataly elicited during the first few months of its opening, widely touted not just in New York but apparently in every tourist brochure.
If you could make your way through the door when Eataly opened this fall, you would be caught up in a mob of Italian food enthusiasts, swept past a Lavazza espresso station, past aisles of cheeses, olive oil, chocolate and dried pasta, and deposited somewhere in the vortex of this new mega food court by chefs and television stars Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. The line just to put down your name for a table took 10 minutes the first time we visited – the wait for an actual table was two hours. The four casual restaurants – La Pizza, La Pasta, Il Pesce and Le Verdure – looked promising, but when they’re oversubscribed to this extent, we had to say “basta!” and head out the door.
Fortunately the crowds have mostly dispersed in the cold of January, and there’s still a lot of tempting, delicious food at Eataly. I started chipping away at it bit by bit, arriving in the off hour of 4:30pm, when the space is relatively uncrowded, buying things, and bringing them home and cooking them. In the pasta and sauce section, several of the artisanal brands of dried pasta are quite good, like Il Pastaio di Gragnano, which has a slightly eggy taste and nicely chewy texture when added to your own bolognese sauce. (Skip the Barilla, which must be a corporate sponsor. Eataly has several.) Mario Batali’s own brand of pizza sauce can make an at-home pizza taste a lot like Otto’s.
A beautiful fish counter, curated by David Pasternack of Esca, has hard-to-find sea creatures like fresh octopus, razor clams, and mussels sold by the pound, not by the bag – so you don’t have to buy five million of them. When made into a zuppa di pesce (Lidia Bastianich’s recipe), the seafood proved to be impeccably fresh. It cost about the same price as Whole Foods – but Eataly’s fish counter has a whole tank of live lobsters. The butcher also stocks hard-to-find cuts like oxtail, which means home cooks can finally make all those Babbo recipes.
I found several Italian specialties missing at the main cheese counter – where are those wonderful Italian cheeses wrapped in walnut leaves? But the refrigerated section has a big selection of freshly made cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta, as well as the creamy, stinky classic La Tur. Expensively-priced produce did not fare as well, since many people seem to be here to gape at it rather than buy it, and there’s not enough turnover. Lettuce can be wilted, and the selection is limited to things you’d find in Italian cuisine only.
In the housewares section, a beautifully designed pepper grinder, endorsed by Batali’s wry picture, has changed my life, and there are a lot of tempting salad bowls amid the sleek and colorful Italian wares here. The fresh pasta on offer is an entertaining diversion – you can watch the chefs feed the dough through the machine – and take home some fresh lunette with ricotta or ravioli with prosciutto and pecorino. Loaves of rustic white bread nearby are excellent.
If you are determined to have someone else cook lunch for you, arrive at Eataly and five minutes to noon. Walk past all the aisles of tempting little jams and chocolates and make a beeline for either La Pasta/La Pizza in the back or Il Pesce/Il Verdure in the center. Do not pause at any cost! If you put your name in at this time, you should end up in the first or second seating. Otherwise, you’ll be milling around until 1:30 at least.
At La Pasta, after a snack of antipasti misto with candy-sweet beets, ricotta, salami, and more, we opted for the house specialty of bucatini all’amatriciana ($16, pictured at top). Though the menu emphasizes it is cooked al dente, this was not the case. But from our post at the pasta bar we wondered how the line cooks could turn out such a massive amount of food in such a short amount of time, as orders poured in from every side, so a little inexactitude was OK. The slightly sweet tomato sauce had a nice bacony, pork flavor of guanciale throughout.
Our friend the sailor ordered the fabulous homemade fettucine with oxtail ragu ($19), which had a real earthy depth to it that’s so satisfying in the winter months. One thing that can be said of this place, despite all the hype, is that all the food here tastes genuinely Italian. Not Italian-American, but as if you stopped in at a restaurant in Italy itself.
If waiting for a table at any of the restaurants is not an option, you can still have a good lunch at Eataly. The standing tables in La Piazza are one option, though cheese, bread, and salami does not always make a whole meal. Better to go there for snacks or a glass of wine. (Don’t skip the wine, which is selected by Italian wine connoisseur Joe Bastianich.)
Instead, head to the rotisserie, which turns out pounds and pounds of beautifully roasted meat and small Cobb Cobb chickens every day. Line cooks cut the warm meat, which varies daily from porchetta to roast prime rib rubbed with porcini mushrooms, into slices for huge sandwiches. It is not a typical panino, but rather an Italian version of an American sandwich, and the result is sublime – perfectly succulent meat sprinkled with fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sandwiched between fluffy but crunchy bread.
This too echoed a sandwich place from Italy – a little sliver of a sandwich shop in Florence that roasted turkeys to make tacchino sandwiches for all the American students there. The place has long since closed, and there has never been another turkey sandwich as good as that since.
Yield to the siren song of the gelateria here before heading out the door. A hazelnut gelato was super fresh, rich, and just sweet enough. Better to skip the Lavazza coffee counter, though, and opt for the TK one further from the door. Lavazza is the Barilla of Italian coffee, a mass-market brand served at the autogrills over the autostrada there. It’s not bad, but it’s not the best, either.
With the right strategy, you can wrest some enjoyment out of Eataly, which succeeds as both a provisioner of Italian food and as an upscale food court-like dining experience. The only irksome thing about it, other than the crowds, is the barrage of signs everywhere touting the virtues of Italy and Italian food. “Food unites us all!” “Eat. Shop. Learn.” Mario and Lidia seem to shout at customers at every turn. OK, already. There’s no need to tell us – you’ve already done a very good job of showing us just how tasty Italian food can be.
200 Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street
New York, NY