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Not-So-Little Italy

by B.A. Nilsson on April 12, 2012

Eataly, 200 Fifth Ave., Manhattan, 212-229-2560, eatalyny.com. Serving times vary by restaurant, but generally are 11–10 Mon-Sat, 11-9:30 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: molto Italiano

Ambiance: bustling

Entrée price range: $11 (insalate tricolore at la Piazza) to $45 (grilled ribeye at Manzo), although you can spend much more on specials

It’s an upscale indoor street fair, a locus of culinary phantasmagoria that dazzles the eye and palate even as it chews deeply into the pocketbook. Eataly opened towards the end of 2010 near Manhattan’s Flatiron Building, at Fifth Avenue and 23rd St., the brainchild of Italian entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, who already had opened a similar place in Turin.

For the 50,000-square-feet New York edition, he went into partnership with Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich, well-established as excellent restaurateurs with cookbooks and TV appearances to bolster their celebrity. According to Batali, Eataly is “a grocery store with tasting rooms.” It’s a dizzying array of aisles and tables and shelves and people on the move. Plate-laden servers glide by with impossible dexterity, threading through throngs of the fascinated and oblivious, deftly dodging the designer strollers that halt when young parents become food-transfixed.

I don’t like crowds. I don’t like design that seems too calculated. I don’t like to dine standing up. By rights I should hate this place. But as soon as I push through its Fifth Avenue door, I succumb. It combines shopping and dining in a deft but seemingly chaotic way. The market winds all around you, shelf after shelf of dried pasta, canned goods, cooking supplies, olive oil, wine, cookbooks and more. Long deli-style counters front displays of meat, cheese, salumi, fish, all of it waiting to be sliced and packaged to order.

The place claims a dozen restaurants, although a couple of coffee counters and a gelateria may not strictly qualify, but the fact that there’s a rooftop beer garden and microbrewery allows them to claim anything they like, as far as I’m concerned. Only one of the on-site eateries—Manzo—takes reservations. This is an upscale (there’s that word again!) Italian steakhouse helmed by Michael Toscano, who worked with Batali at Babbo. Dry-aged steaks and several versions of carne crudo (raw beef—an Italian favorite) are among the specialties.

For me, however, the ideal Eataly meal is at la Piazza, which features salumi and cheeses. Browse the nearby displays of various prosciutto preparations and other processed meats, and then do what I do: order a sampler platter ($19). It arrived on a cutting board, the meat slices arrayed for a mildly artistic effect quickly destroyed by my fingers. At the center, so to speak, the two most famous prosciutto varieties: prosciutto di Parma and the darker prosciutto San Daniele, sliced thin enough to let you roll it easily across the tongue to pick up the many flavors, obscured less by salt than in the cheap supermarket-deli variety. By way of contrast, a couple of slices of prosciutto cotto, known better as ham, and a cold-smoked variety called speck. A soft ring of mortadella, which is a fatty pork sausage, and a couple of traditional salami slices completed the array. But those were only half of the goodies the board purveyed, because we also ordered the grande piatto miso di formaggi ($19) the cheese version of the above. And so we tasted cow’s milk ricotta, a sample of parmigiano reggiano from unpasteurized cow’s milk, a slice of firm sheep’s milk rossellino, a buttery casatica di bufala (made from buffalo milk) and creamy, pungent cow’s-milk gorgonzola. The finest flavor combination I found came from adding a few drops of the supplied honey to the rossellino. Honey-enhanced dates and apricots also garnished the plate.

When you’ve claimed a table and a server claims you, you’re going to be upsold up the Arno. The recitation of specials is enough to make you swoon, especially as the seafood items are described. But I held my ground and ordered only olives to start—a $9 dish of incredibly delicious critters: green Sicilian castelvetranos; purplish, tart alfonso olives and the small, black gaeta, served in olive oil (good for bread dipping) with a slice of marinated orange rind.

Even as I put in the order for the salumi and formaggi platters, the server tried again for the seafood sale. I stayed firm. “How about some fresh mozzarella?” I wilted. A generous portion of sweet, sliced mozzarella ($15) is served with sun-dried tomatoes, and makes an effect contrast with the sliced meats. If I hadn’t felt so ornery, I might have gone for a plate of sardines with sweet peppers ($12) or crostini with tuna ($15), but I think we fared splendidly, a glass of prosecco ($9) buoying me for the rest of the day.

Other dining-area-restaurants specialize in fish (Il Pesce) and vegetables (Le Verdure), with specialized menus for same. La Pizza & Pasta offers thin-crust Neapolitan pizzas, and the upstairs Birreria presents the house microbrews, which are available only in that location.

What’s particularly nice here is that the ingredients for anything you eat are available, a nice try-before-you-buy kind of program. And if you feel intimidated by any aspect of the food or its preparation, there are classes and walking tours and even Eataly-sponsored trips to Italy. There’s an Eataly in Tokyo, more have opened in Italy and others are planned at upscale locations around the world. I suppose we’re lucky enough in the Capital Region finally to be getting a Trader Joe’s, but now you’ve got something to look forward to during your next trip to New York City.