I first read about Eataly in the April 2013 issue of Wine Spectator, detailing how proprietor Oscar Farinetti began building what is fast becoming an empire. With 25 locations strewn around the globe, the bulk are currently in Italy and Japan. It is emerging as the place to go for the upper crust of artisanal Italian foodstuffs, with many of the vast emporiums now including cafes and osterie. The newest addition in Florence offers audioguides detailing selected history of that beautiful Renaissance city. Eataly strikes me as reminiscent of New York's iconic gourmet grocery chain Dean and DeLuca, though on a much grander scale and strictly Italian. I also love that one of Eataly's goals is to educate in addition to selling. Especially when outside of Italy, I'm always for spreading the word of true Italian cuisine to one and all!
On my upcoming sojourn to Italy, I'll be in four cities with Eataly stores: Milan, Bologna, Florence, and Rome. Heavily dosed with curiosity, I plan to visit them all. A particular aspect that appeals to me, is that each location seems tweaked to have its own unique elements tied to the local city or region. The history lessons in Florence or the dining in Bologna I expect will be unique in their own right. One thought that has occurred to me though, in the midst of my geeking out over multiple floors of all Italian food products, is whether Italians feel the same way. Many must be enamored, as the stores are obviously successful.
Piles of vegetables in Campo dei Fiori ready for the morning's customers One of my favorite things about visiting Italy is going to the markets and little specialized shops, many run by various generations of a family. They are cozy, quaint, and genuine. I'm curious about the benefits and consequences of the big-box concept. On the one hand, I can see it benefiting the various independent producers of the products they sell: olive oil from Puglia, pasta from Campagna and so on. Is there a downside for the mom-n-pop bakery or butcher shop? In my experience, shopping the markets and small stores is an intimate and cost-effective way to to dine. Browsing Eataly's U.S. site, the products are not selling on price first. That isn't to say there isn't good (or great) value, but I considering how much pasta I eat, I won't be dining on $8-a-bag selections any time soon.
I actually spent some some time checking out TripAdvisor reviews for various Eataly locations. For the Italy locations, I chose to read the Italian language reviews first, and for the NYC location I viewed English language first. Italian reviews were more mixed but quite positive overall, with the restaurants getting dinged a bit more than the store itself. As expected, English reviews ranked with an even higher average of positive reviews. As more than one Italian reviewer pointed out, it's a great spot for niche and luxury items, but not a place where the average citizen would shop daily. After all, Italian foodstuffs are no novelty to Italians. Unless you have regular money to burn, shopping in stores like these are typically reserved for the occasional treat or special occasions, but still make for delightful browsing while you save up.
Have you visited any of the Eataly locations? Please share your experience in the comments below, and stay tuned for when I get to report on my own visits first-hand.