Chef Edward Pinello at the Eataly fish counter. (©Brian Babineau)
If you like eating Italian—and who doesn’t—Eataly will rock your world. This shrine to cucina Italiana, which opened at the Prudential Center last year, is part supermarket, part restaurant, part culinary school and part spectacle. Eataly distills the vast panoply of Italian food culture into 45,000 square feet of shopping, eating and drinking. It’s a food emporium on steroids. Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti opened the first Eataly in 2007 in Turin, Italy. The company quickly expanded to 33 locations worldwide, including Denmark, Turkey, Japan and Brazil, with more on the way.
Boston is the fourth Eataly in the U.S., joining New York (with two stores), and Chicago. The American locations are co-owned by PBS cooking personality Lidia Bastianich, her son Joe, and celebrity restaurateur Mario Batali. “There’s an old Italian saying ‘una città a misura d’uomo’ which means ‘a city the right size for man,’” said Lidia Bastianich. “Everything (in Boston) is accessible. It’s a food town. With all the students, there’s a café culture. Of all the cities where we’ve opened, Boston is the closest that you get to an Italian city.”
The Eataly experience tends to blow first-timers away. There are multiple counters to order food to take home, or consume at one of the small tables sprinkled around the front and rear of the store. There’s a coffee and breakfast pastry station and a counter for sandwiches (try the homemade potato chips). There’s a salad bar and stations selling prepared foods: rotisserie chicken and roast meats; focaccia and pizza slices; gelato and pastries.
Three restaurants occupy the center of the space: La Piazza for casual noshing, wine and shared plates; La Pizza & La Pasta; and Il Pesce, a seafood restaurant where the menu was put together by Boston superstar chef Barbara Lynch. All of the restaurants are first-come, first-served with no reservations. A fourth restaurant, Terra, featuring a room specializing in barrel-aged draft beers, occupies the third floor and has a wood-burning Italian grill as its centerpiece. And then there are the shops situated around the perimeter that recreate the experience of small-town shopping in Italy. There’s a bakery selling sourdough breads, ranging from semolina baguettes to rustic country loaves studded with orange peel, chocolate chips or olives.
Eataly’s fishmonger is one of the best in the city—boasting varieties like mackerel, monkfish, skate, octopus, and wild squid, in addition to the usual cod, salmon and shellfish. They also sell baccala and bottarga (salted fish roe). All fish, meats and vegetables are locally sourced whenever possible. The cheese and salumi department has one of the most extensive selections of domestic and imported cheeses and cold cuts in town. Plus, they make their own mozzarella. The pasta shop sells ravioli, tagliatelle, and maccheroni, made before your eyes.
Then there’s the massive section of imported Italian groceries, many of which aren’t easily found outside Italy. If you have questions, ask one of Eataly’s amiable employees, many of whom have encyclopedic knowledge of Italian foodstuffs. “We want to make sure that what you’re making reflects the authentic, Italian, old-world version of what it’s supposed to be,” said assistant grocery manager Jay Kraft, who can explain the flavor profiles of Sardinian olive oils and the merits of San Marzano tomatoes.
Need ideas on how to cook what you’ve just purchased? At the rear left of the store, there’s a glassed-in, demonstration kitchen, which offers multiple classes each week (from gnocchi-making to the wines and cheeses of Tuscany). And at the rear right (in front of the large wine department with more than 1,000 labels), there are cookbooks, imported tableware, and kitchen equipment, all for sale.
What will be the effect of Eataly on the North End, Boston’s iconic Italian-American neighborhood? Longtime North End restaurateur Donato Frattaroli isn’t worried. “The North End is an entity unto its own,” he said. “I think Eataly is great for the city, but, at the end of the day, I really don’t think it impacts the North End.”
So now the Back Bay has its very own North End.