I’m drawn to all things Italian, and not just in the kitchen. But when news broke that Mario Batali was opening an Italian mecca for tutto Italiano, I was hesitant. Why did I doubt the master? I guess I was worried that Eataly would be like every other consumer haven in the city, just another overpriced and overly crowded Manhattan superstore where every inevitable tourist takes too long to decide which processed doughnut she wants, and later, checks out thinking she got a great deal on a three dollar tomato? Let’s just say I was wary, but curious.
On the other hand, Mr. Mixologist was itching to see what all the hype was about. While I won’t argue that he knows how to mix it up behind the bar, or in the bedroom for that matter, he’s not exactly a whizz behind the stove (in fact, I’m not sure he’s ever even used his stove for anything other than boiling off a pot of simple syrup). Maven that I am, I felt confident that Eataly presented an opportunity to teach him a thing or two about food. Especially Italian food. Having dated a bone fide Italian and traveled to Italy on several occasions, with flagrant self-assurance, I warned him that Eataly would prove just another mega store chain filled with “gourmet” (a.k.a. expensive) foods and unfriendly employees who wouldn’t know their malfatti from their meatballs. But since I’m not one to turn down a free meal or a hot date, Mr. Mixologist and I made a appuntamento with Eataly.
Walking into the Italian Disneyland of food was a bit overwhelming. On a hot Indian summer night a few weeks back, we made our way through the freshly painted double doors just off 5th Avenue near 23rd Street. The smell of espresso and the sounds of steamed milk began to get my imagination and taste buds percolating, but before stopping to try anything, I was hell bent to venture on and see what else Eataly had to offer. A chocolate counter, milk in glass jugs, meat for miles, imports galore, a vegetable bar, Manzo Ristorante (offering a high-end beef-focused tasting menu), and a smattering of lower-priced cafes offering restaurant quality meals. Think Harrods Food Court with an Italian twist! With wood burning ovens baking fresh breads and pastas being hand tossed in the air, I was starting to feel like a kid in a candy story, or shall I say, a kid in an Italian candy store! The atmosphere was friendly, and the people who worked there were happy, graciously willing to help answer questions about the endless assortment of antipasti. My doubts were slowly being washed away that Eataly was just another consumer confine masking as a foodie paradise.
Mr. M and I snatched a standing table (a Mario signature!) at the crudo bar. Deciding which raw fish dishes to pair together with my rosé and his Italian beer, my mind began to slowly wander back to my former Italiano and the many meals we shared together. I wondered if he had paid a visit to Eataly or if he dismissed it the same way I had. A man who stuck to his guns when it came time to eating Italian cuisine, I could only imagine the strong opinions he already conjured up about this place: the comparisons he might make when judging Eataly’s fresh linguine versus the linguini vongole that he so often ordered at the Borg. He was not a man who liked flair in his fettucini. A traditionalist through and through, I guessed he would’ve hated the yellowtail with crushed pistachios and volcanic salt we decided upon (and loved).
I was quickly brought back to reality when Mr. M suggested we splurge and share Eataly’s premium meat and cheese sampler platter alongside our seafood. A man after my own heart, I nodded with delight and we began digging into a spread that featured fresh ricotta with truffle honey and salumi (that was not only perfectly pink but also reasonably priced). Between sips of wine and bites of bread layered with cured meats, I shared with him my experiences overseas: the food, the wine, the coast, the canals, the twin beds with Celestina and the many meals with Mamma Belle. Sensing my longing to venture back across the pond, Mr. Mixologist gladly offered his travel partner services!
We finished the meal, and with me pulling at his arm like some child who wants to go somewhere they are not allowed, I planted us right in front of the cheese counter! While we watched them make fresh homemade mozzarella, my mouth began to water and I begged for a taste. I knew I had found a new formaggio spot to feed my addiction, and I look forward to going back to try all the imports they offer!
Making our way back through the coffee shop toward the exit, the smell lured me in, as it so often does, and we decided to cap our evening with espressos to go. Much to my chagrin, I was sadly disappointed. How ironic for an Italian eatery to produce such inferior espresso…watery, thin, biter, lacking the rich balance I had hoped for, it surely isn’t making my list for the best coffee sips in the city anytime soon. We left our espressos behind and grabbed some fresh pasta and cheese (I just couldn’t help myself!) and headed home. Mr. Mixologist asked me when we would be preparing our private Italian feast for two and I smiled, assuring him that after convincing me to give Eataly a shot, I would repay the favor with a handmade meal from my hands to his lips.
I suppose that is when I realized that even if Mr. M has never been to Italy, he has all the passion, gumption and soccer skills to keep me falling for him. Just like Eataly, he has enough originality to keep me from comparing and leaves me wanting more.