By Emily Paster
One of the highlights of my recent trip to New York was the chance to eat and shop at Eataly, Chef Mario Batali's 13,000 square foot shrine to Italian food. Located right off of Madison Square Park and easily accessible by several subways lines — I took the 6 train downtown from my hotel at Lexington and 51rst and felt like quite the New Yorker for having done so — Eataly is a worthy tourist destination for anyone who loves food. Bloomingdale's Saks Fifth Avenue, Barney's — we have all these stores in Chicago. I don't need to go to New York to find high fashion. But as of now, there is only Eataly in the United States and it's in Manhattan. (Rumor has it, Chicago is getting one in 2013. I can only hope it's true.) So that was where I spent my few free hours in the city.
Walking into Eataly is likely to give you sensory overload. The concept is even hard to describe in words. Imagine a huge market with hard-to-find, artisanal and imported products including sweets, coffee and tea, oils and vinegars, jams and preserves, fresh produce, aisles and aisles of pasta and sauces, spices, charcuterie and cheese, fresh seafood, and even kitchen and housewares. Then add in several spots to grab take-out or a quick bite, like a bakery, an espresso bar, a panini stand, a raw bar, a gelateria, and a stand-up wine bar with tastings of cheese and charcuterie. Add to that several sit-down restaurants including one focusing on vegetables and soups, another with pizza and pasta, two more formal restaurants, and on the roof, a beer garden. Plus a place for cooking classes naturally. That's Eataly. If you have trouble making decisions, it's probably best just to avoid the place; even the most decisive among us will find herself pulled in a million different directions.
Sadly for me, I knew that I would not have time to sit down and enjoy a meal at Eataly. I only had an hour or so to browse and shop before I needed to be back uptown at the Food Dialogues panel on antibiotics. Plus, I had to bring whatever I bought home on the plane, so that eliminated anything liquid that was larger than 3 oz. (As excited as I was to shop at Eataly, I was not prepared to check a bag as a result.) Had I not been limited in my ability to buy liquids, I definitely would have relaxed my policy against buying store-bought jam to buy some of the gorgeous imported jams and preserves I saw, including rose hip and elderberry. Also, I would have been sorely tempted by the fancy olive oils. But as it was, I stuck to dry goods.
I couldn't resist buying several bars of artisanal Italian chocolates, particularly those with nuts and dried fruits. I also indulged in some Italian nougat which I love, and which is nothing like the nougat in a Milky Way bar. I also wandered the pasta aisle looking for products that would be hard to find elsewhere. I ended up with some pearl barley from Umbria and a bag of toasted fregola, a cylindrical kind of couscous from Sardinia that is toasted after it's made. I am excited to experiment with both of these new-to-me products. I also treated myself to some orange and fennel-scented salt that will be heavenly sprinkled on something. Seafood perhaps?
The oddest thing I bought at Eataly — especially considering I had to fly home — was four quince from California. Quince is a funny round fruit that looks like a cross between an apple and a pear and is related to both. They are extremely astringent raw, but once cooked quince become sweet, fragrant and turn a rosy hue. Quince is the source of the pink fruit paste membrillo that is served with cheese in tapas restaurants. I will write more about what I did with my precious quince in anther post. The reason I bought them was simply because quince are very hard to find in stores and I was just so excited to see them. Remember, I am the person who brought butter home from Paris, so I am not deterred by the idea of traveling with perishable cargo.
Before I left Eataly, I made sure to protect myself against the possibility of having to eat bad airport food by buying two delicious panini — one tuna with arugula and the other prosciutto with fresh mozzarella — and a hunk of freshly-baked focaccia. I had a long day ahead of me, and all that food definitely came in handy. In the late afternoon, when interviewing the Faces of Farming finalists, my fellow judge, Chef Danny Boome was extremely impressed when I pulled the Eataly focaccia out of my bag and passed it around.
So, if you have a trip to New York in your future, definitely find some time to visit Eataly. To see so many gorgeous and high-quality products in one place will warm your soul. Plus, you will eat very, very well.