Go hungry. In fact, go very hungry if you really want to have more than a taste of Eataly, the sprawling Italian food mecca at Fifth Avenue and 23rd street in New York City. Just don’t call it a food mall.
Owners Joe Bastianich, his mother Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Eataly-founder Oscar Farinetti call their Italian outpost in the Flatiron District ” an artisanal food and wine marketplace.” Farinetti opened the first all-things Italian food emporium in Turin and another in Tokyo.
At 50,000 square-feet in the old Toy Building, Eataly is supposedly the biggest food market in the world and well on its way to becoming a city landmark. The first thing that strikes you on entering at Fifth Avenue is that it sounds and smells like Italy. People are speaking Italian and drinking tiny cups of espresso. Instead, try a machiatto (steamed frothy milk and espresso) at Caffe Lavazza or a gelato (artisanal of course) before you start your explorations.
Recognizing that Eataly sprawls in all directions, the staff hands out a sheet labeled “How to Eat at Eataly.” Helpful, but you will still need a strategy. Explore first, then eat, and finally shop for a cucina Italiana meal at home. And be patient, lines can be long — even at checkout.
Wander through the aisles and you will see hundreds of brands of pasta, fresh and dried, endless rows of tomato sauces, honeys, jams, and condiments. The pantry aisles are well stocked with an impressive number of olive oils and vinegar and rows of gherkins of all sizes. Italian chocolates were flying off the shelves during a recent visit. Made without milk, cream, or butter, the brands to buy are Venchi dark chocolate and anything made by Giraudi.
If your weakness is household goods, better go with a fat wallet as the Alessi and Guzzini brands of kitchen equipment are irresistible, as are the exquisite copper pans and table linens. Rizzoli has its own little on-site bookstore with Bastianich & co books taking the lead.
The wow factor is the huge variety of canned and dried goods, dried meats, sausages, hams, prosciutto, pancetta, and local and imported cheese. Beer is a standout, more brands than you can count, including such craft beers as Menabrea, Moretti, and Birra Lurisia. La Birreria, Eataly’s year-round rooftop beer garden and microbrewery, is scheduled to open this spring. Eataly Vino is a shop next to the 23rd Street entrance with roughly 1,000 bottles from various regions throughout Italy. Here’s where you can find grappa by Montanaro and limoncello from Sorrento made by Convento. Fresh fruits and veggies are pricey compared to the green market at Union Square at 14th Street, but you will find a better array of mushrooms — 14 at last visit — than most places.
Once you have the layout down pat, it’s time to eat. La Piazza is a stand-up food bar in a central rotunda where you are served little tastings of salami, cheese, and sea food from the well-stocked raw bar. Some 70 wines are available by the glass. Just find a spot and a waiter will give you a menu and take your order. Il Pesce specializes in seafood prepared Italian style in antipasto and main course portions, You can eat while sitting at a table or seated at a counter. Near the books and fresh pasta, there’s a place to put your name on a list for “first-come-first served” seating. There are two other seated counters for eating: Le Verdure is the place to go for hot soup and bruschetta and Pizza and La Pasta for tagliatelle, lasagna, and ravioli. Skip the classic Neopolitan pizza made with a creamy mozzarella. It’s good, but not as overwhelmingly good as the pasta dishes which are unbeatable.
For more formal white tablecloth dining, consider Manzo, (beef in Italian). With 16 tables and 20 seats at the bar it is open for lunch and dinner daily and is the only restaurant here which takes reservations (212-229-2180). A tasting menu is $90 person. The cooking is bold and sassy and the menu will encourage you to experiment with dishes like seared foie gras with crispy pigs tail, squash and aceto traditional. You can’t miss with the porterhouse for two and souffle potatoes. Manzo’s specialtyis Piedmontese beef. But keep in mind that you will be dining in a busy, noisy restaurant without walls, tucked up right next to the adjacent cooking school. The staff is enthusiastic and well-schooled, but you still have to contend with a location that lacks character and charm.
Your final stop before heading home might be to buy dinner. At the rotisserie counter, the Rosticceria, you will find an excellent roast chicken and roasted potatoes and every Friday, roasted boned breast of turkey stuffed with turkey sausage. At the meat market, count on 17 different cuts of veal while at the fishmonger, the standout is a whole bronzino ( European sea bass). Among the daily baked breads, one great favorite is the olive bread. Desserts at the bakery are nothing less than sublime and even that old standby, tiramisu, is a far cry from the cloyingly sweet version you get in most restaurants. For a schedule of cooking classes at La Scuola di Eataly and for more information, visit Eataly.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.