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Dec 8, 2012 12:10 PM

EATALY in Rome -- David Downie's erudite take

... or maybe better to say "takedown"

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  1. It's not that the Eataly products weren't excellent. They were. But the ones bought at Volpetti's dinosaur emporium were even better. How now, things purchased at a small, quiet, family-run place, which, as everyone knows, should no longer exist? Perhaps the reason was as elusively simple as everything else in Rome. Here reigned spontaneity, joy, passion and straightforward business instead of canned music, moving sidewalks, picture windows, handsome young acolytes, preachy zealots, and vats of sour-smelling sanctimoniousness."

    So he likes the products but he finds that Eataly is preachy? Whatever. I wish I had them in my neighborhood.

    10 Replies
    1. re: monkeyrotica

      We visited Volpetti's when last in Rome, on a fantastic day spent with Maureen Fant and I think I understand the point that David Downie is making.

      Volpetti's is relatively small and crammed with an amazing range of fabulous produce - and I will never forget how genuinely happy the Volpetti brothers were to introduce four Australians, with our stumbling attempts at Italian, to their wares (some of which was breathtakingly expensive).

      We had a similar experience at the Testaccio market, where Maureen introduced us to store holder who sold only tomatoes, who refused to sell anything to you until you told him what you were going to cook - and then would only sell you the variety that best suited what you were going to cook.

      The quality of the produce is one thing and you can buy great produce almost anywhere in the world these days. But the deep knowledge, passion and personality of the people who sell them somehow makes the experience of discovering the produce of a country like Italy so much more special. At Volpettti and the Testaccio markets, you could only be in Rome, nowhere else in the world...

      1. re: monkeyrotica


        The article says that he and his friends did a blind taste test and found that the products from Volpetti TASTED BETTER than the products from EATALY tasted. You left out those sentences in your quote.

        Since EATALY is opening branches everywhere, you'll surely get your wish for one in your neighborhood. The question is whether Testaccio will still have Volpetti's in its neighborhood, not whether EATALY is wildly popular.

        I was reading on the Manhattan board just the other day that the EATALY in NYC sells artisinal ketchup. (Not a joke -- I mean the post wasn't. You can really buy it there.) Guess that "traditional foods from every region of Italy" preaching doesn't get in the way of the core American supermarket idea in the long run -- or the short run! The NYC EATALY hasn't been open that long.


        Did you read the article? Downie was born in Rome (I think) and what he appreciates more than the experience of Volpetti is the better taste of the food. He thinks their passion translates into better flavor. I don't think I'm reading him wrong on that point.

        1. re: monkeyrotica

          believe me, you will have Eataly in DC soon enough. Its more of a scene (here in NY) than a shopping place, really, More people staring at the displays of fish, meat, etc than buying - tho a lot of eating is going on. We visited the Genoa Eataly in October - its down on the harbor not far from the fake pirate ship in tourist ground zero (to the extent Genoa has one) and is very modern, eccentric entrance and exit, very few people inside when we were there - admittedly, in the post lunch hours, not a big shopping time. I looked for the famous regional cheeses of Liguria (there are a few) saw none. Looked for some culatello, which we had not had on this trip - they had none. As in all these stores, lots of private label and other fancy groceries. We left without buying anything. I woulnt have been tempted to do any of my Genoa eating in there on a bet. Still havent figured out what it is FOR.

          My last visit in NY I bought a couple of pieces of interesting and good cheese. But note, they were pre-wrapped. For all the attractive service staff, they do not have a fully staffed cheese counter. which will give you tastes and fresh cuts. Its simply not serious. Contrast with Volpetti, which will offer taste after taste, which has an aging cellar for its cheeses and years of cultivated relationship with the best producers (all the training of eager young people in the world cant substitute for experience and connoisseurship, and the kind of relationships which will assure that only the best products at the appropriate stage of development are delivered. Also the passion that causes overaged items to be taken off the shelves.... No wonder the Volpetti food tasted better than the Eataly. But it IS probably cannibalizing a trendy segment of the market and sucking business away from more individualistic stores. I like to think that more outlets will make for more people taking up cheese production jam and pastxa making, quality oil production, etc. But its just as likely that places like this will suck up all the best cheese and let is sit on shelves in plastic wrap till it dies, unbought.

          1. re: jen kalb


            The EATALY in Genoa is for the cruise shippers who dock in the port but are terrified to walk 15 steps into the dark caruggi. That is the only reason it is there. I've never been. Most people don't even know it exists. When you read news articles about the EATALY Empire, when they list the cities where there are chain branches, Genoa is almost never on the list.

            (By the way, the fake ship in the harbor is leftover from a movie Roman Polanski made in Italy and didn't take back to Switzerland with him.)

            It's a pity the tourists won't spring for a relatively cheap cab ride to the Mercato Orientale and its nearby shops and restaurants, where you can sample some extremely tasty fresh food. (Did you ever by olive oil around there?)

            It is terrible, but I guess predictable, that you report that in our eyeball-driven culture, looking at the displays and reading in EATALY has become the main attraction, not a sensual experience of food. I believe there is an overall problem with, not only the mega-marketing (brainwashing, really) going on with EATALY, but the whole notion of "food laboratories" and "universities". It's scientism and reductionism taking over what is something irreducibly unscientific and dynamically alive -- food. Growing, cooking, dining, enjoying food is an art and an alchemy, not science. "Educated" people are having that understanding taken away from them.

            Yesterday I bought a half kilo of apples from a local farmer -- really ugly hand-picked apples from the mountains, bruises and worm holes, and stunted looking they were so small and puny. I just ate one fun lunch, and even I was shocked: That one little apple had so much energy and flavor packed in it, I was inspired to a little dancing through the kitchen. It was a microcosm of Italian autumn in nine snappy bites. It is not coming around again. It's a unique experience to eat these apples. Science can't do this, and EATALY can't bring it to you through its production chains.

            By the way, I haven't forgotten your stove lighter! I've just been nowhere near a good hardware store, and I don't want to send you something broken.

            1. re: barberinibee

              Im going to post about Genova eventually, and thanks for remembering about the lighter. We went to the EVO shop and the lady was charming - wound up with an Arnasco oil (not yet sampled, thanks for the reminder) since the Levanto oils were not yet available (they were just putting the nets out when we were there).

              Like you, I cant understand a clinical, technocratic looking and didactic environment for eating (just as I am put off by some of the quirkier, technical cooking methods). The sensory element is everything with food. At least in the NY eataly people ARE eating, although the environment is so boisterous I have to thin the actual food the crowds are eating at their tiny cramped tables is an afterthought.

            2. re: jen kalb

              I spent quite a bit of time in the NY store asking to taste different meats and cheeses at the counter in the section with all the high top tables. They were very nice and helpful to me in finding a good variety to take to a party.

              1. re: klc137

                thats nice to know - I take it they were free tastes?

                1. re: jen kalb

                  They were. I was asking about different cheeses and meats and they were giving me samples.

              2. re: jen kalb

                I do need to correct Ms. Kalb's statement above with regard to cutting cheese or charcuterie. The Eataly in NY has a full service cheese counter and I have stopped in an tasted a number of excellent and well-handled cheeses and charcuterie there before buying. They also have a "pre-wrapped" section for people in a hurry or those who know exactly what they want.

                1. re: teezeetoo

                  I stand corrected, apologies to Eataly and all. Both of the responses were helpful. Im assuming its around the corner from the packaged display? I will check out when I next get to that area. However crowds of browsing tourists make the store a less than inviting place for real food shopping .

            3. Jen, you're so right. Stopped in last week for a few slices of their good foccaccia and to have a look at their very good olive oil collection. The shift toward more eating and drinking, and away from buying, perhaps except for fresh pasta and breads, continues. I've been underwhelmed by their cheeses (but not their cheese prices). One scene: back in a corner near the oils there's a carefully stacked display of books by Lidia, Mario, and Joe, lit to resemble a side chapel in a prosperous Catholic parish--all it needed were votive candles. It already had a trio of tourists taking camera photos of the display, one remarking that she'd seen her (Lidia) somewhere on TV. At some point, I imagine the food products, whatever their quality, will shrink more to accommodate more diners and drinkers, but will still be needed as a validating backdrop. Otherwise, it's just a food court with shrines.

              3 Replies
              1. re: bob96

                I think Ive said before, I mainly go in there to see if there is any half price bread - there usually is - and enjoy my bargain.

                It would be nice if they had Gambero Rosso or Slow Food Editore books in their cookbook shrine - surely they could pull some strings to do so - but they dont.

                1. re: jen kalb


                  I thought Downie was really quite astute in dissecting the quasi-religious cult origins of the Slow Food movement. It is possible that imperishable books are more profitable to stock and sell than highly perishable food, so that is what consumers are subtly or not so subtly being steered to pay attention to inside the stores. Even without cookbooks, EATALY is about words, not foods.

                  1. re: barberinibee

                    The books are of course part of a totalized branding with cute-clever sayings about "how Italian is it" on the walls, and all the Bastianich-Batali iconography to sacralize the space. I doubt there's much real connection left between Slow Food and Eataly, except in a mission statement somewhere. This is now a monster business--$70 million in NY's first year--which will go wherever the margins are--beer hall, school, online, more of everything.