Leave it to Dave Pasternack, the chef at Esca and Il Pesce at Eataly, to find the perfect description for it: “Studio 54, but in a supermarket, at night."
Indeed, the Batali-Bastianich mega-temple of Italian food, Eataly, burst onto the scene this summer and has been thronged with people ever since. Food tourists wander halls filled nearly from floor to ceiling with imported Italian products and delicious foodstuffs, and its multiple restaurants are all abuzz.
We recently had the privilege of joining Michael Chiarello, a first-generation Italian-American award‐winning chef, Emmy‐winning Food Network host, tastemaker behind the NapaStyle retail company, highly rated vintner, and noted cookbook author, on his first visit to the space.
Soup to Nuts, Italian-Style
Walking into Eataly, most visitors are inspired and amazed by the soaring ceilings, aisles of product, and station after station of food. Even Chef Chiarello takes out his iPhone to snap a couple of pics.
Inspecting the packages of honey, tea, chocolates and jams lining the walls, Chef Chiarello tells us “I shop the world’s markets a lot, so I’m always curious about what is new.” His eyes light up, looking at jars upon jars of conserves and jams. “This is everything great about Italy, from soup to nuts.”
Taking a closer look at jars of Mieli Thun acacia and chestnut honey, he immediately points out that his own retail business, NapaStyle, is very different from Eataly. “If there are a dozen foods we're going to import, we look at what is mainstream,” he says. If honey is the next new trend, he makes sure it's packaged in a way that will sell it. "We’ll look for something intriguing, like if there was a honey dispenser that was really cool and could sit on your counter.”
Picking up a case of Calabrian Amarelli licorice lozenges (Calabrian licorice is the best in the world, he would attest), he says, “Things like this I love… they’re really dry licorice -- great to have in a store.”
The Perfect Gift
Chiarello looks over the chocolate case, run by Venchi. He takes hold of one of the cigars on display and says, “We did these two years ago, they are wildly giftable. If you’re a chocolate fan or a red wine fan.” We're thinking host or hostess gift for this holiday season.
The Inside Scoop
Walking past Il Pesce, there was no stopping Chiarello from checking in to see if his friend was in. "Is Dave there?" he questions, leaning over the bar. Pasternack emerges, and the two laugh like old friends. Chiarello recounts their first meeting, "he was walking up the subway steps with the tail of a fish hanging out of an ice chest." Pasternack bubbles with excitement as he talks about the wonders of Eataly, and insists on taking Chiarello on a private tour of the space. The two go behind-the-scenes, inspecting the ravioli machines and pasta dryers, tasting the spelt bread, fresh from the oven, to admiring the massive wood-fired pizza ovens. "No gas!" he tells Chiarello, who is nearly speechless as he takes everything in.
The East Coast Advantage
We stop in front of one of the various display cases full of cheeses directly imported from Italy. Mesmerized, he picks up a ball of burrata. In New York, he says, "it’s as easy to import something from Italy as it is to ship something from California." He seems wistful for the huge variety of straight-from-Italy cheeses. "It’s really good for the chefs here," he admits. “You get burrata here we don’t. My burrata is made in L.A.”
He goes on to tell us about his family of cheesemakers, specializing in mozzarella, which later became one of the most popular items at his first restaurant, Tra Vigne. "We made it to order,
he remembers. "It got to be too much so instead, we’d make it twice a service.”
Catering to American Tastes
Inspecting packages of pre-sliced prosciutto and salumi, Chef Chiarello is transported back to his days when he worked at Peck, the large Italian market in Milan, where food was prepared on demand. "Downstairs, they had a marble floor, and everything would get sliced and diced down there.” He notices how at Eataly, everything is packaged for self-serve convenience. “In Italy, everything is served to order and the temperature is right,” he says.
A packaged of Creminelli salami catches his eye, being the only salami in a whole case of prosciutto. “In the restaurant prosciutto is a big deal, but in America, people really don’t want to eat this stuff,” he says, referring to the salami in his hand. “At the restaurant, I make all of our prosciutto. I have for years and years."
Chef Chiarello begins to tell us about the recent big food shows he has attended when suddenly he stops midsentence and picks up a package of Beppino Occelli butter. “This butter is good. Oh my god. Unbelievable.” What makes it so tasty? “This is whey butter, the get it from making cheese, so it has active culture.”
Moving on to the hard cheeses, he immediately gravitates towards one sunny yellow-tinged cheese, studded with black peppercorns. He holds it up for us to see: a delicious saffron and pepper pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese, and one of his favorites. Inspecting the cheeses on display, it is evident that he's pleased to find the pecorinos are all from Calabria, the region of Italy where that type of cheese is traditionally made and, incidentally, the region his family calls home.
It just goes to prove that no matter the range of exotic goods on offer, even the most practiced gastronomes gravitate towards the flavors of home.
Want more on Eataly? Check out our article on Eataly's Pasticceria.