To quote my wife, as well as to cut to the chase, “Is this what we drove five hours to see?”
The “this” was a store known as Eataly. Last year on a trip to Rome, we saw one from a distance – a huge building with a distinctive roofline and a sign so enormous it would be more properly called a billboard. But we were there for another reason and decided not check it out, despite the many articles in magazines and newspaper that make it seem like some sort of mecca for foodies. Indeed, there are already outlets in a number of major cities around the world.
We drove from our home in southern Marche to Bologna, which was a rather grueling trip involving hot weather, traffic jams and diversions, looking for a place to stop for lunch, and finally finding a parking garage with reasonable rates near the center. And then taking a taxi from the garage to Eataly. AND being caught in a sudden thundershower with no umbrella and wearing sandals. By the time we got to Eataly it was 5pm, we were exhausted, and not exactly in the mood to take in the place with a leisurely stroll.
I mention this only to establish a frame of mind not really disposed toward generous praise. I had imagined an entire block consumed by a massive store containing multiple levels, an open gallery, throngs of people noshing on delicacies, and a bevy of chatty clerks — a good time being had by all.
Instead, after meandering aimlessly and searching, we stumbled into a smallish storefront, with an escalator (up only) climbing three levels – I should mention my wife doesn’t enjoy stairs either going up or down. Each level was a mashup.
Imagine a book store — let’s say a pint-size version of many well-known book stores in the U.S. such as Powell’s In Portland, the Strand in New York City, or The Tattered Cover in Denver, with a specialty food market offering stacks of packets, jars and cans (nothing fresh) grafted into recesses between shelves lined with books. Titles with provocative names like “Discovering the Secrets of Tuscany,” sat a few centimeters from bottles of extra virgin olive oil selling for 15 euros. An exotic combination, to be sure. Tucked into larger alcoves were a handful of restaurants and cafes. At that time of day, they were all empty, save for uniformed staff sweeping the floors for the evening shift.
To people in many cities, this should sound familiar. A number of larger bookshops combine books and foods to eat on the spot. From coast to coast in the U.S., unique Italian food markets offer amazing food products of all sorts shipped direct from Italy. The venerable Pike Place Market in Seattle, The Reading Market Philadelphia, and the Ferry Building in San Francisco combine all of these and offer many other choices to boot. There are similar places in Melbourne, London, and Tokyo.
I think most people who have lived and worked in larger cities might be bored with Eataly. We left after twenty minutes. The best part of the trip was just outside Eataly, on the Via degli Orefici. This narrow street is jam-packed with small restaurants, outside tables clustered under big umbrellas, and tiny shops selling all manner of goods, from custom-made shoes to vintage silver serving sets to freshly cut fruit presented in beautiful arrangements. Couples strolled by our table, arm in arm. Kids zipped around on bikes. Elderly women carried bags of fresh vegetables home for dinner. We were within earshot of at least five, animated, simultaneous conversations. The server chatted with us amiably and we heard languages spoken from many nearby countries, along with, of course, Italian.
In other words, The Real Italy.
Sociable. Boisterous. Chaotic. Often perplexing. But always beautiful. Why would we go inside a store to get a watered-down facsimile? Living in Italy, one gets to know merchants and their staff by their first names. (Sometimes even the names of their children and their cousins). Angelo, our butcher, now knows exactly how we like the whole turkey prepped for Thanksgiving. Lia, the owner of one of our food markets, immediately texts me whenever she gets in a particular item I like. The woman who carries books and art supplies, keeps in stock special drawing pens for me. We have met the family of the fish monger as we often come across them at a favorite restaurant. That is the magic of Italy. Relationships built up with time and repeated social contact. Not merely the co-location of Sicilian cooking oils and convoluted crime novels.
So who exactly does Eataly appeal to? Over a dinner of hand crafted pizza and salads in a neighborhood restaurant in Rimini, our young, bilingual Italian friends gave us an answer in unison — TOURISTS. Of course, this includes not just Americans and Brits, but Europeans and even some Italians as well, all eager to experience Italy in one single gesture. The mercantile version of the Big Gulp, perhaps.
I chose to save the biggest surprise for last.
On our way to Eataly by car, I noticed that google maps showed two places marked as Eataly. Two in the same city? One was in the historic center; the other was in a nondescript, outlying suburb marked mainly by massive roundabouts and large industrial structures. It was only a few kilometers away, so we decided to check it out. Leaving the autostrada, dotted with signs pointing the way, we rounded a curving road and there it was.
Eight lanes of asphalt roadway lead up to a huge arched toll plaza with booths and gates. This was a gigantic amusement park, under the blazing metal banner of Eataly. Set to open in late July, the place was abuzz with new employees showing up to train for operating the rides and serving food from pit stops in between.
Well, food is, after all, supposed to be fun. But, sorry, bumper cars blended with balsamic is not my idea of entertainment. In the future, we shall pass.
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