Sept. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The line wound down Fifth Avenue from 23rd Street through Manhattan’s Flatiron district as security guards flanked multiple entrances to the former International Toy Center.
The hubbub wasn’t for a nightclub; it was for the first American outpost of Eataly, an Italian supermarket with a marquee’s worth of food-world royalty attached: mega-chef Mario Batali, his business partner Joe Bastianich, chef Lidia Bastianich and Oscar Farinetti, who also backs the chain in cities including Turin, Milan, Bologna and Tokyo.
Forget about the dopey name. Eataly is full of wonders. Is there greater culinary transparency anywhere? The profusion of reading material on the walls tells us that the Iowa pigs were raised on clover, Michigan lamb reared on hay, Montana beef allowed to roam in pastures and Pennsylvania calves kept outside of cages. Why get anyone else’s rotisserie chicken when you know this $9 bird is moist, well-seasoned and antibiotic free?
The longer lines at Eataly are not for the take-away but for the restaurants. I waited 10 minutes just to speak with a host at a pizzeria that refused to serve me pizza -- they were booked for the night.
So I went to the fishery, where I was seated after 45 minutes. Ever go to a restaurant and think you could make it faster at home? Eataly provides the raw ingredients to follow through on that threat. “We eat what we sell; we sell what we eat,” is the mantra. I watched a live langoustine make a last ditch freedom attempt. Sorry bro.
There are 14 places to dine at Eataly, four of them actual restaurants, five if you count the piazza where you eat nutty, salty prosciutto di Parma standing up at tables so high no shorties need apply.
Take your glass of Prosecco or a super-strong Negroni and browse the aisles with caution. A 10-pound porchetta roast costs $193. Smaller portions were sold out by 7 p.m.
At Eataly, ambience takes a back seat to cuisine. Men in double-breasted suits quaff rose near the bottled chocolate milk station and I chewed through a $75 beef tasting menu while overlooking the olive oil department.
That six-course meal took place at Manzo, which I’ll review later this fall after contemplating how I feel about paying $133 in a venue lacking a clean, nearby restroom.
For now, I can vouch for the take-home stracciatella di burrata (extra creamy mozzarella) and a $5 basket of heirloom cherry tomatoes. The produce section’s maitake mushrooms, at $7 a pound, were cheaper and prettier than any I’ve purchased at Whole Foods.
The people behind the meat counter were skinny while the vegetable butcher (his real title) was bald and fat. Go figure. Le Verdure, the mostly-vegan spot, serves real veggies cooked in olive oil and sea salt, as opposed to the silly soy-protein fake meat espoused by culinary crazies.
Try killer tomato soup, vegetable fritto misto ($21) and pesto lasagna ($16 -- with dairy) whose firm texture bested a version I had at Del Posto.
I wish the restaurants would mix things up a little more. I couldn’t get pasta at Il Pesce, the fish spot, which dished out a pallid, underseasoned seafood soup ($12). Stick with the trio of crudo ($19) from Esca’s David Pasternack. Halibut belly with tangerine oil and pink peppercorns was a solid argument against overfished bluefin tuna. Finish with roasted orata ($24) which you debone yourself, after which the waiter congratulates you on your expert filet skills.
They do serve fish at the pizza place, which I finally breached after an hour wait. Was it worth it? Not for undersalted fusilli in a paltry beef ragu. But definitely for what could be the city’s best seafood pizza, studded with a sufficiently briny (but not assertively salty) mix of creamy clams and squid over chewy, well-seasoned dough.
Skip the “traditional specialty guaranteed” $18 pie with mozzarella di bufala -- it’s indistinguishable from the $13 non-buffalo version. Like any great pizza, the olive oil just barely cuts the tomatoes’ acidity; the cheese is warm, not blistered; the over-charred crust just barely droops in the middle. A second visit (to the newly opened takeout stand) proffered a crust with a lighter, more bearable wood-oven tang.
Just crave a slice? No problem. A focaccia hawker sells yeasty squares of dough topped with tart tomatoes and musty pancetta. If only the casual spot here served dessert; when dinner’s over, most of the (excellent) gelato is sold out.
Eataly is at 200 Fifth Avenue at 23rd St. Information: +1-646-398-5100; http://www.newyork.eataly.it
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and entertainment section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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