The sights, sounds and smells of an Italian market are borderline intoxicating. You see countless people bustling about with little plastic bags, roller carts and kids in strollers sucking on wedges of parmesan like lollypopsVendors bark their specials and talk with regulars. You smell lilac and fresh cut flowers, herbs, rosemary, basil and sage. You eye the fresh tomatoes, raspberries and smoked meats. You sip an espresso and catch the whiff of freshly baked bread.
If there is one thing Italians do better than anyone, it’s eat… well, and drink. We don’t always do government well. A solid work ethic? Pass. Family is important. Cars, art and opera are on the list, too. But food and wine? It’s what we do.
Italian markets aren’t like suburban American farmers markets, where hipsters and yuppies go to get semi-fresh ingredients for their dinner parties. Market days are the heart and soul of Italian culture. Generally held in the main town square (piazza), the Italian market offers a wide selection of artisan foods, clothing, kitchen goods, books, linens, toys, trinkets and more for residents to do their shopping, not just for a special occasion, but for life. Remember, there isn’t a Walmart in Florence (yet, thank God).
Today, Italy is the spiritual home of the Slow Food movement, created to promote local foods and centuries-old traditions of choosing, producing and eating good food. Off the record, the Slow Food movement really started in protest to the opening of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome (that’s blasphemy), but has since taken off to exemplify the right way to do all things culinary and inspire operations all over the world.
Eataly Gourmet Italian Foods. Located on 5th Avenue in New York, smack dab in the heart of Manhattan, Eataly bridges the gap between Italian culinary tradition and upscale urban market trendiness. Walking into Eataly, one is transported back to local markets that exist in every city and small town all over Italy. Yeah, it’s a little bigger (over 50,000 square feet) and a little nicer, and it’s inside, but the feel is there.
Founded in Turin in 2007 by Oscar Farinetti, Eataly now has 10 locations throughout Italy. In America, he has partnered with serious food and wine enthusiasts. Lidia Bastianich (of Lidia’s Italian Kitchen) is on board, as is her son Joe (of Fox’s MasterChef) and Mario Batali (Food Network star, restaurateur and all-around good Italian), among others. Together, they opened Eataly in NYC and Chicago with more to come. With this star power, you’d expect the offerings to be more style, hip, trendy and expensive. But, in essence, Eataly is a substantive retail market experience. It delivers the diverse selection of products their shoppers want, from local and international vendors, with an obsession for quality and at prices that are honest and competitive. Eataly might be really cool, but it has to be functional as well, and good for customers. Yes, you can get a $145 lamb rack, but you can also get a cheap box of Rami breadsticks and a can of San Pellegrino. Everybody wins.
Eataly New York is less small local market and more Campo de’ Fiori on steroids. Rome’s oldest daily market, Campo de’ Fiori offers the best food and kitchen goods in the city and is neighbored by fabulous — yet totally accessible — cafés and restaurants serving only dishes of the highest quality. Put that concept in a huge building in Midtown Manhattan (NYC’s piazza?), add products from Italy as well as hundreds of local artisans, restaurants, art, a wine shop, special events and classes on Italian cooking and culture at La Scuola (school), and you have one of the most inspirational Italian shopping, eating and learning experiences in America.
From a market perspective, Eataly shines. The sheer volume of products available is overwhelming; everything from pasta, fruit, artisan cheeses, olives and crackers, to sweets, coffee, meats, books, clothing and face creams. A tourist can see it all and be awestruck, but Italian homesick locals can still run in and get all they need to supply them for a few days, even if it’s just a ball of housemade burrata, a few tomatoes and figs, some organic aged balsamic vinegar, a fresh ciabatta loaf, some apricot preserves and a Bacci. Roll into the attached Eataly Vino for a $20 Borgogno Barbera d’Alba, and life is good. The concept is totally Italian Market; one place to get everything you need.
Speaking of wine, Italy produces and consumes a great amount of the world’s finest wines. In honor of this, Eataly Vino offers more than 1,000 bottles of Italian wine and spirits. Italy’s wine industry can be a bit complex and intimidating. With tastings, food and wine pairing events, a pretty solid wine club and frequent classes from Italian wine masters, Eataly makes sure anyone can learn and find what they want, including that budding cellar master seeking a rare bottle of just-released 2010 Barolo that is said to be the best vintage ever.
Although Eataly is basically designed to be a food and wine market, it’s also the perfect place to be social. Eataly has seven sit-down restaurants as well as multiple café-style establishments serving food prepared from ingredients found in the market. Small shops offer take-out panini, roasted meats, pastry and gelato. La Piazza is a favorite for the enoteca-style Italian market traditionalist, serving daily selections of cured meats, housemade cheeses and fresh vegetables on marble slab counters, stand-up bistro tables and with lots of table wine. You know what they say; a salumi a day keeps il medico away.
Want to experience more? Have a seat at Manzo for a true new-world/old-world cross cultural gastronomic event. The chefs at Manzo (the Italian word for beef) create both traditional and modern Italian dishes using only the best American beef. Any carnivore must try the Carne Cruda of honey-braised fat back with a black truffle vinaigrette and their eight-week dry-aged ribeye steak, grilled for two. You’ll think you died and went to some sort of Italian-American heaven.
For learning the true Italian experience, try Pranzo. The Italian word for lunch, this restaurant specializes in constantly rotating its menu and educating its guests about the regional cuisines of Italy. This month, it’s Umbria, which means you learn about — and yearn for — truffles, polenta, gnocchi and sopressata, among other delights. Oh, and don’t forget the wine. Umbria is home to some of the best Sangiovese south of Tuscany. Eat and drink, and you’ll feel like are in Orvieto.
Metterci la ciliegina sopra, Eataly seems to be the near-perfect modern expression of the Italian market. It’s what the market should be; a place to gather, shop, learn, eat, drink and enjoy everything that makes life beautiful.If you want to experience the the true Italian market experience, go to Italy. If you want to get as close as you can here in the states, shop at Eataly, order online, or pray that one comes to your town.
And remember the old adage: Never trust a skinny Italian chef.
Featured image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/nathanmac87/