Much has been said about Eataly, the new Italian food emporium located near Madison Square Park in New York City, and as a result, I had some definite expectations about the place. I expected it to be expensive and feel rarified. I expected it to be "fancy" - for lack of a better word. I also expected it to be very, very crowded. Ultimately, I found some of those things to be true, and others, not so much. Before I get to those details though, I must tell you the story of how I came to visit Eataly on this fine November morning...
A few years ago (about four) as some of you may remember, a local girl named Rorie wrote a blog called Milk and Honey. Rorie's blog was chock full of lovely photos, recipes and travel adventures, and it was clear we had a lot in common. Before we could manage to meet in person though, Rorie moved to the East Coast to go to law school. (I warned her, but it did no good.) We stayed in touch through the intervening years, and I think we we both assumed that one day, we would meet up either here or in San Francisco - where we both spend a lot of time. For whatever reason though, it just never seemed to work out. When Eataly opened, we finally just decided to go for it. We made plans to meet up in New York City, sight unseen, for the weekend. I stayed at the Ace Hotel for four nights in a room with bunk beds, and Rorie joined me for two of them. It might have seemed a little wacky to some, but we were pretty sure it would work out, and luckily we were right. We had a grand time eating and shopping our way through the City, most of those meals have yet to be written about here... Ma Peche, Momofuku Milk Bar (those pork buns!) Locanda Verde and the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory tour for starters. We even ran across the New York Marathon together! It was quite a rush.
Getting back to the discussion at hand - with respect to the prices at Eataly, I really did not see the problem. The meal pictured above - a meat and cheese platter for two and sliced caprese salad made with their house-made fresh mozzarella, was only $33.00. I've spent more than that at Whole Foods for just the groceries, and they weren't nearly as good. The packaged (mostly) house-cured prosciutto in the packaged salumi section ranged from around $5.00 to $7.00 per four ounce package, and their prices on packaged cheeses and dairy, and other non-perishable goods like candy, pasta sauce, pasta and rice were truly no more than they would be anywhere else.
It also wasn't terribly fancy. It is, after all, primarily a grocery store. That's not to say that the food isn't fabulous. The bakery brims with crusty loaves of very good bread, and the fresh pasta case offers a wide selection of fresh cut plain noodles, tortellini and ravioli...
The meat and seafood cases are also fully stocked with abundant, gleaming specimens. The prices here (particularly for the meat) were expensive, but it appeared at least as if the quality was commensurate. (I did notice the fish selection was quite a bit better on Saturday than it was when I returned on Monday - the picture below was taken Saturday.)
I also didn't find the space it to be nearly as confusing or difficult as it's been described. There are several distinct sections, so it's not one giant room, but the layout disperses the crowd a bit, and allows you to focus on what happens to be in front of you at the time, which isn't entirely a bad thing in my mind.
The store is divided into four areas, roughly - if you walk through the main entrance you are in the produce section - with the wares displayed in kitschy market carts. The atrium area with the salumi and cheese bar is just beyond that, and to the left is the large hall housing the Verdure Bar, Pesce, meat and fresh pasta counters, the dry goods such as pasta, rice and sauces, and the Pizza and Pasta bar. If you go through the atrium and turn right, you're in the section with the packaged meats and cheeses, pastries, panini, gelato, chocolate and espresso. To the left is the Manzo restaurant and seafood counter, and an area that looked like it might still be under construction. It all looked good, but if I'd had time for another meal, I think I would have liked to try the pizza.
Before we visited, I'd also read quite a few complaints about confusing and slow service at the food stations and dining areas. They close between lunch and dinner - so between 3 and 5 PM probably isn't a good time to come to eat (but it might cut down on some of the crowds if you want to shop.) Early seemed to work just fine. We arrived at about 10:30 on Saturday morning, and sat down at the Salumi e Formaggi bar in the center atrium at around 11:00. We had pleasant, prompt service - as did everyone around us. By 11:30 or 12, the atrium had filled up, and the other dining area was getting pretty crowded, but there were definitely seats available. It was more crowded on Monday at lunchtime (a 45 minute wait for two at the Pizza bar), but it's fairly easy to grab a quick bite if lunch is your aim. They have roasted meat sandwiches, traditional panini, gelato and espresso in the section of the store adjacent to Broadway (go in through the Broadway entrance) and the bread counter sells slices of focaccia style pizza made with fresh mozzarella. There are stand up tables in the dairy section of the store where you can eat takeout food, or you can take it across the street to the park.
Ultimately Eataly is definitely worth a visit. Is it worth a special trip across the country? Well, I had some great company and many other other fantastic meals (and adventures) to go along with it - so for me, it definitely was. More on those coming soon!
200 5th Avenue (at 5th and Broadway, adjacent to Madison Square Park)
New York, New York 10010
Notes: going early for lunch seemed like a good way to beat the crowds. The dining bars close between lunch and dinner, so check their hours before you go in the afternoon. The Ace Hotel is also a great place to stay if you plan on spending some time here - it's about four blocks away, at Broadway and 29th Street.