To shop Eataly‘s 50,000 square feet of Italian foods you must first pass through the Lavazza espresso bar just inside the marketplace’s Fifth Avenue entrance. The backdrop to this virtual Via Veneto of consumed – and consuming – New Yorkers and tourists, many of them Italian, is a collage of Lavazza calendar girls. You see Il Postino‘s Maria Grazia Cucinotta, the embodiment of 1990s Italianissimo, ogled by the espresso sippers of the Caffè Tripoli (March-April ’96). A few months later she bears the weight, such as it is, of co-Miss July-August Federica Ripamonte on her shoulders without spilling a drop of precious coffee – neither hers, which I imagine to be a frothy double macchiato, nor Federica’s.
Comprising most of section “2” on the floor map above, Eataly’s dry pasta department is only slightly larger than your average Tesco Express mini-market. Five aisles are consecrated not just to Italian pasta but to Italian pasta made within the borders of Gragnano, a municipality in the province Naples and the region of Campania. The artisan producers of Gragnano first sought recognition from the European Union to protect the provenance of their prized pasta. Here at Eataly they seek to establish it as a status symbol as well an Italianissimo imperative. Forget Dolce and Gabbana: the designer DG stylish New Yorkers simply must have in their apartments is di Gragnano.
Eataly didn’t need to sell me on the virtues of what my go-to sources on Italian cooking regard as the world’s best dry pasta. Were I any more excited by its endless assortment of Gragnano they’d have to empty a brown paper bag of Afeltra penne and fit it – the bag, not the penne – over my hyperventilating head. I did need to be sold on a producer, however, and it’s there, in its curatorial role, that Eataly falls short: There’s no effective way to choose among brands of varying value other than by comparing prices and packaging.
With three of my go-to sources – celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich and MasterChef (USA) judge Joe Bastianich – as partners in this enterprise and a fourth, the estimable Slow Food, acting as consultant I initially thought that quality assurance would be in the bag. But to make Eataly financially viable founder Oscar Farinetti had to set aside shelf space for deep-pocketed food companies, both Italian and American, and possibly ask moguls Mario, Lidia and Joe, the co-owners of Del Posto, the first Italian restaurant in New York to be awarded four stars by The New York Times since 1974, to set aside some of their personal preferences for small artisan producers. Mega-brands infiltrate the selection, right under Slow Food’s nose.
Yet if Eataly is occasionally turning slow food for a fast buck I don’t think that alone explains my ambivalence towards this spectacular addition to the New York foodscape. I fear my thoughts about this shopping and dining complex are shaded by a crisis in my own Italianissimo complex and, more to the point, my disillusionment with Italian coffee culture and style. These are topsy-turvy times and the beautiful is turning ugly: George Clooney is pitching Swiss espresso to the Italians and lending his image to three-story Nespresso billboards spoiling the postcard views of timeless piazze. Lavazza 1995 calendar girl Carla Bruni is married to a French president who, horror of horrors, wears shoe lifts. She tells mean lies about Michelle Obama. And the Italian-roasted espressos prepared at Eataly by uniformed baristas under the eyes of Maria Grazia Cucinotta are not nearly as good as the American ones prepared a few blocks north by tatooed retrosexual geeks in a coffee shop that goes by the less-than-Puccini-esque name of Stumptown.