September 7, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Eating Eataly

Photographs by Steven Richter

Come to see, stay to taste salumi-formaggio combo in the Piazza.

        Mario Batali has described Eataly NYC – the sprawling Italian grocery store he and the Bastianichs (Lidia and son Joe) cooked up with Eataly’s creator Oscar Farinetti with money from Torino - as a “temple where food is more sacred than commerce.”  That means we foodiots must not merely sit down and eat at the steakhouse Manzo, Il Pesce’s seafood kitchen, Il Verdure the vegetable canteen, the Pizza/Pasta Café and the Coffee Bar or even graze in the Tasting Piazza. No. Not enough. To worship in Mario’s temple we must shop, embrace the butcher, the fishmonger, the fresh pasta counter, the bakery, the vegetable stalls, then go home and cook!

Take home pasta is reasonably priced. Sightsee while waiting for a table.

        Actually I do see a few shoppers filling their translucent plastic carts late on opening day when we come to graze one week after our blogger's preview. There are dried porcini for $250 an ample sack and artisan pasta and chickens on the rotisserie ($3.80 a pound). Rizzoli runs the book shop and you can buy an Eataly tote to save the forest. Maybe Eataly will become Whole Foods Italiano for the locals.  But I live at the opposite end of town.  I have Zabar’s and Fairway and Trader Joe’s about to open. I don’t need a red plastic salad bowl or an espresso pot or even artichokes prepped for me by the vegetable concierge.

First nighters claim standing room only in the Tasting Piazza.

        I’m here for dinner, frazzled already from having stewed outside where lines of wannasees stretch around the corner. The security guard finally lets us sneak in with the queue as a dozen exit. I shoulder my way past the ice cream queue and tank topped gawkers toward the Tasting Piazza, where a ravenous rabble of people just like us – entitled New Yorkers, “kiss me, I’m Italian tourists,” a refreshingly eclectic crowd in age, chic and fat ratio - vie for tastings of cured meat, crudo, formaggi. Or just stand around trying to figure out what to do next.

         At a signal from Joe Bastianich perhaps, a space opens for our threesome at a salumi slicing station where a silent, unsmiling duo, relentless as robots, feed hunks of cured meat to the blade of giant machines. Victoria, dropping off cutlery rolled in a napkin, says she will be our server. A busboy delivers crusty pale beige bread wrapped in crinkled brown tissue paper, and dishes of fig and orange peel mostarda and honey. The “gran selezione di salumi e formaggi con pane e miele” on a wooden board we are sharing is sensational - speck, prosciutto, salami, creamy sweet gorgonzola, chunks of parmigiana, mozzarella, tallegio and pecorino di fossa. Easily enough for the three of us.  We stand there, unrushed. Cousin Mitch (TastyTravails.com) polishes off a bottle of Moretti Bionda. I get a big pour of Morellino in a large goblet, a simple fresh red that will finish well with pizza.  No non-alcoholic beer yet for Steven, never mind that Mario promised in a first-night opening delirium.  Victoria apologizes.

         “Did you come from Italy for this job?” I ask her.

         “No. I hope you won’t be sorry. I’m from Lithuania.”

         “How nice,” I say, wanting to assure her it’s not really essential to be Italian, even here. “My grandmother came from Lithuania too.”
 
         “My grandmother is Jewish,” Victoria offers with a grin. “That’s why I can’t spell “'r.'”

         I realize she means “pronounce” not spell. “But you just said the “r” in Victoria,” I encourage her.

Pizza makers from Naples feed pies to the shiny gold ovens.

        We linger over the tasting. I’m unwilling to leave a morsel of cheese. Paying the check, $48.90 with tip, takes forever. First night, credit card backup, I can hardly complain. We move on to the pizza corner where a duo of masters from Naples is shoving pies into a pair of sparkling gold tiled ovens. My plans to taste a trio of pizzas ($9 to $18) and all sorts of pasta – tagliatelle al pesto, lasagna alla Ligure or alla Norma with eggplant, spaghetti cacio e pepe ($12 to $19) – are set aside as the first burst of hunger I brought with me fades.  Lidia, schmoozing a customer at the counter, offers her seat. But miraculously (if you know what I mean… even aging food bloggers cut some lines), a table empties.

The salad is a gem; our pizza’s toppings are fine but the crust is soft.

        We’re sharing an exquisite little mixed salad – baby arugula, slivers of remarkably fragrant fennel, and pickled vegetables, meticulously dressed, with our “maruzzela” pie (anchovies, black olives and fresh basil).  It’s dinner plate size, wonderfully free form and properly blistered, very Neapolitan, soft and soggy, the dough only mildly flavorful, not my idea of great pizza. But Cousin Mitch and the Road Food Warrior seem happy enough. “It’s much better than the first night,” says Steven.

I’ll be back for more of the wondrously al dente paccheri with seafood.

        Big hair roller shaped paccheri - “very al dente like in Italy,” the menu promises - with bits of calamari, grouper, clams, scallops chase my pizza blues.   Long loose curls of artisan fusilli with tomato and meat ragu are good too, though not the sheer triumph of that paccheri.  I see it piled on a shelf in front of me – groceries as décor – and want to buy some, but Steven’s already headed toward the door.  The line for ice cream is longer now. Pastry? I study the bouffant half moons of custard and cream. Where are summer fruit tarts? Nothing cries out to me. Mitch surveys the chocolates. He buys 4 for $5. For me, that one chocolate caps an evening of mostly delicious salty and fatty excess.  My hair is soaking wet.  Perhaps it will be easier to keep Eataly warm come winter than it is to keep it cool in Tuesday’s swelter.

A tartare of Razza Piedmont beef with quail egg is worth seconds.

        Back again Wednesday night. Will New Yorkers be willing to spent $200 a couple for a steak dinner in a grocery store granted crisp white tablecloths and votive candles? There’s a certain insouciance to the concept, I suppose, an escape from Manhattan steakhouse macho and mahogany paneling. I’m watching the crew scrub down the rotisserie station beyond the glass wall as we finish a mostly satisfying dinner at Manzo Ristorante, Eataly’s celebration of beef, notably the Razza of Piedmont, now being raised in America. 

Another exquisite celebration of summer with rather ordinary rolls.

        Again, the staff is warm, intimate but not too, peppy and endlessly accommodating, tonight rotating a knowledgeable wine director and a waiter in shirtsleeves of a certain age who could have drifted in from The Palm – plus the young cheerleader crew that run dishes and bus tables here. Eataly has a staff of 350 if you count part-timers. The city held 30 recruitment events it claims connected 200 people with jobs. And the Mayor showed up to cut the ribbon and announce that the city’s New Business Acceleration Team had trimmed fifteen months off Eataly’s opening by running interference with all the nit-picking agencies that drive restaurateurs bonkers.

Manzo chef  Michael Toscano delivers a first-rate veal chop.

        We vote down the $75 six course tasting menu and a $65 five course Ligurian menu to craft our own – three antipasti, two primi and two secondi - for the four of us to share.  Except for the marvelous oversize veal chop – deliciously pink, perfectly caramelized - and the salad of vegetables, portions are…measured. I found myself feeling cheated with just a tablespoon of  carne cruda, the wonderfully flavored tartare with a quail egg from the Razza celebration, biting my half of one truffle bruschetta and passing the rest to my guy. Small pink curls of “arista,” Tuscan roasted herb-stuffed pork, with fennel salad and bagna cauda doesn’t quite make up for missing Mario flashes like warm calf’s tongue in a Barbaresco vinaigrette and brains with an oxtail ragu.  Why didn’t I just go whole ox? I brood.

The stylish grater befits excellent pappardelle with sausage and radicchio.

        Slick swaths of marvelous pappardelle dotted with sausage and radicchio quickly disappear while a few agnolotti del plin – small rectangles filled with a turkey, beef, veal, pork farce sautéed in brown butter remain on the plate. But then came tagliata, juicy rare slices of beef, with corn, chanterelles, charred onion and truffle vinaigrette and that perfect veal chop, “smoked in hay,” the menu claims, with gigante beans and bits of speck. (Entrees listed as “Secondi” run from $25 to $95 for a rib eye for two with potatoes and gorgonzola butter.)

         “I like Cesare’s beans better, they’re more velvety,” says one of our friends, also a fan like me of Salumeria Rosi. At that moment, we spy Cesare Casella and his wife emerging from the Piazza, come for a birthday dinner. We butter him up with bean flattery then debate dessert.

The sliced beef has a strong, unusual flavor, two of us approve, two do not. 

        I admire pastry chef Luca Montersino’s baba al limoncello with lemon cream and a duo of tiramisus, modern and classic, but even more satisfying is a cup of splendid chocolate gelato our friend has brought back to us from the ice cream station.  “When I asked for four spoons and said we would be four sharing this cup, the server asked if I wanted more ice cream,” she reports. First week, that seems to sum up the house attitude.

Amazing to find chef David Pasternack running Il Pesce Saturday night.

        Saturday night I’m surprised to see Chef David Pasternack from the B&B Hospitality Group’s Esca actually running the line in the narrow kitchen at Il Pesce and Lidia at the counter with a friend. Of course they should be on hand given the investment here, but still. Labor Day weekend. It’s impressive. I recall the evening as a cracking good time, staff running and fetching and jollying, Lidia displomatically ignoring Steven’s brazen trick of bringing 50-cent fishmonger Littleneck clams to the table rather than pay $15 for six off the menu, a move I do not recoomend. “I should call security,” she murmurs. All of summer, Coney Island, Gurney’s terrace in Montauk, blurs into that sublime slurp of the sea. For a minute. Then we’re back in what may turn out to be Walmario’s.

Steven went wild buying clams at 50 cents to avoid paying $15 for 6 off the menu.

        The crowds piling into the tasting Piazza have pumped up again, proving once again that the whole world is not in the Hamptons on Labor Day weekend. But tension racks Il Pesce. At 9 pm the insalata di mare has been 86’d.  Pasternack is substituting salmon filet for mako shark and has only one order of whole pompano left – I reserve it.  He dashes out of the kitchen racing around our table into the fishmonger’s station to grab a giant blue fish.  “I sold 150,000 pounds of squid,” he tells me next day. “And 432 lbs of branzino. You don’t want to buy too much. Tomorrow will be a whole different menu.  We are the second busiest and the smallest kitchen.”

Fresh sardine and anchovy filets sit atop oil-slicked peppers and onions.

        The bread is soft and boring (the imported baker fell and has been out for two days, Pasternack confides).  But I’m eating it anyway waiting for the marinated sardines and fresh anchovies on grilled sweet peppers and crudi to arrive. Steven and I are dividing a $19 trio of raw fish.  Crazy frugality I realize as I take my first bite. The cool, firm, sweet sockeye salmon with crystals of Hawaiian salt sends exquisite sensuous joy flying from my mouth to my brain. I close my eyes to savor it, and all around me, our restrained quartet is dissolving into eye rolling and mewings.  I have never heard Steven use the word "awesome" before but there it is: “Awesome,” he says. The clean cut of mackerel sports a pungent dribble of olive confit and a cool sea bass chunk carries a crunch of sea bean and salt. More sighs.

A sensuous thrill: sockeye salmon, mackerel and sea bass with sea bean.

        It’s all about pure fish here, every evening a pan-seared whole fish and a second fish roasted, a fish filet and mixed fish fried “Ligurian style” are chalked on the blackboard. The blue fish for two could be less cooked for my taste but I like it better than the two scrawny pompano with figs. The substituted salmon is best of all – sautéed rare in butter with lemon peel and green peppercorns. The fritto misto is a rich, greaseless toss of floured shrimp, squid and white bait with chunks of cod and skate fried in olive oil. Steven, a fritto misto addict, loves it. I long for it to be softer, even greasier. (“They didn’t bring me the right flour,” the chef admits the next morning.)

Pasternack casts his net for a lively mix in the fritto misto.

        I ask our waiter if we can order a pasta from the café.  I yearn for the seafood paccheri.  “Not yet,” he replies. So I order all three vegetables on the blackboard: summer squash, crisp roasted fingerlings and corn niblets with cherry tomatoes. There is no dessert offered, just the check that comes without asking. Our friends race off to buy some pastries to carry home.  And we follow the road signs to checkout.

The last of the pompano are scrawny and took cooked for me.

        “I need to go back and spend more time just wandering around,” says Cheryl (ATigerintheKitchen.com). “Although, it's the kind of place that'll make me spend more on cheeses and chocolates than I probably should.”

Il Pesce’s verdure: summer squash, fingerlings and corn with cherry tomatoes.

        Fifty thousand square feet, a staff of 350, porcini for $250, cranberry juice imported from Italy with a global footprint bigger than Eataly itself. In a way building this boldly contrarian Mecca  right now, in an uncertain recession trough, represents a rash optimism not unlike Windows on the World when it opened at a dark economic moment in May, 1976, and inspired this burst of optimism from me: “If money and power and ego and a passion for perfection could create this extraordinary pleasure… this instant landmark, Windows on the World… money and power and ego could rescue the city from its ashes. What a high.  New York would prevail.”  Well it’s just a thought.

All photographs of Eataly may not be used without permission from Steven Richter.

Eataly 200 Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets.  Coffee Bar (Entrance on 23rd Street) 7 am. Eataly opens to sell groceries at 9 am. Restaurant service from 11 am; Manzo at 11:30 am. Last seating in restaurants at 10 pm. Store closes at 11 pm. Reservations for Manzo only beginning October 1st.
Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene



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