Eataly, Alti Cibi: Shop,Taste and Learn

Opened in January 2007, Eataly can best be described as a multifunctional centre, a place to shop, taste, and learn about Italian food, its provenance and its preparation. The vast floor space of 11,000 square metres occupies three levels. When I visited in January 2008 my guide was Simona Milvo, a project manager with the educational section. Entering the building from the street opposite Gallery 8, you’ll note checkout counters on the left and small carts for shopping.

On the right an educational area— easy chairs, a library, and further right, a room of apple computers provides access to gastronomic information of all kinds. Directly ahead, centre stage, are placards listing daily menus for the ristorantini (small restaurants) and a large exhibit encouraging the consumer to be prudent in seeking out the freshest produce as well as food that is currently in season.

Walking on the ground floor we encounter speciality areas, there are 10 in all, each one devoted to a particular class of food, Le Verdure (Vegetables), I Salumi e I Formaggi (Salami and Cheese), Il Pesce (Fish) and so on, each area having its own artisanal produce for sale and its own ristorantino, the idea being to combine buying with tasting in a relaxed way. We stopped at La Carne (Meat). Here are pre-packaged meats, a fully stocked butcher and a grill surrounded by a circular counter where customers sit on high-stools and dine informally on traditional meat dishes. I chose carne cruda, raw beef hash with salad accompanied by a full-bodied red wine from Alba. This small meal was light, fresh and delicious. The beef comes from la granda, a farm cooperative located near Cuneo that raises the Piemontese breed of cattle under strict environmental rules.

The ristorantino at La Pizza e La Focaccia serves Pizza da Napoli. The crust uses high-quality flour from Gragnano near Naples, the tomatoes are a sweet Neapolitan variety, and the mozzarella, made south of Naples, is limited in production and costly. Served plain or with prosciutto, this dish is something to remember and fairly priced, as are all dishes at the ristorantini. Nearby, the counter at Il Forno a Legna offers many varieties of crusty bread freshly baked in the custom-built wood-burning oven.

In small red-brick alcoves and in open airy spaces customers can find over 900 artisanal products carefully selected from the best Italian sources, all at reasonable prices— antipasti, balsamic vinegar, soft drinks, spices, kitchen utensils, glass storage vessels, fresh milk from a self-serve dispenser, on and on.

In a vaulted atrium there are long tables of locally grown fruits and vegetables and in the distance a sign Qui il Dolce (Here, the desserts) tempts us to taste quality ice creams and pastries. Turning left, through a narrow passage, a small espresso bar serves the best Guatemalan coffee and a tabled anteroom has shelves of Carpano vermouth—yes, he is still here!

A long moving walkway allows descent with shopping cart from the ground floor to the cellars— here are the original arched red-brick rooms where vermouth was once aged. Today there are racks of fine wines with labels too numerous to mention, and table wines for just two euros a litre. Small passages lead to confined cellars where cured meats hang aging and huge rounds of cheese lie calmly waiting for their day to come. In an area called Della Birra you may sample any of hundreds of Italian and imported beers, accompanied by a choice of dishes of the day and Del Vino offers a similar service in wine. Turning a corner we stand before the glass doors of the main ristorante, coincidentally named Guido per Eataly, a place to experience the best in Italian cuisine.

Above the ground floor are offices, tasting rooms, lecture halls, teaching kitchens for cooking classes offered to the public, and the Carpano museum containing chemistry apparatus, vats and many large metal canisters of film housing the dated and often amusing television advertisements for vermouth.

Eataly’s main goals run parallel with those of the international Slow Food movement, the non-profit organization founded by Carlo Petrini. These goals include the preservation and promotion of artisanal food production in Italy and throughout the world, and a fostering of the public’s awareness of the benefits of authentic cuisine. Eataly maintains close ties with Slow Food through the friendship of Petrini and Farinetti, a large number of Eataly’s products are endorsed by Slow Food and designated by the movement’s snail logo, often accompanied by explanatory text about the product. Many of the 200 young employees at Eataly are students of gastronome, some of these attend Slow Food’s private University of Gastronomic Sciences based in Pollenzo near Bra.

Current plans to export Eataly to other locations worldwide include a 3,500 square metre two-floor Eataly at 18 West 48th Street in New York City which opened in the summer of 2008.

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written by Guido Lorenz