It may occur to you, as you circulate among the pasta snobs, wine geeks, and amateur cheese sniffers who move, like agitated schools of fish, through the new mega-Italian-food destination Eataly, that you’ve entered some strange, previously uncharted dimension of the food universe. It certainly occurred to my daughter Jane as we waited for our lunch to arrive at the vegetable restaurant Le Verdure, one of the many dining venues in the sprawling food-hall complex. During the course of our little adventure, we’d already observed avid food tourists taking videos of tagliolini and stood in airport-length lines for a taste of Neapolitan pizza. We’d sampled spoonfuls of Martian-green pistachio gelato and tried vainly to get a table at the complex’s most upmarket restaurant, Manzo, where the menu is devoted entirely to meat. “I wouldn’t call this a real restaurant, Dad,” said Jane, when we finally found a seat in the milling crowd. “It’s more like a circus, with lots of food.”
This is high praise coming from a 10-year-old, of course. And there’s a lot about this sprawling big-top production that seems to have been designed with a deliberately simple, even childish sensibility in mind. There’s the goofy, weirdly catchy name, coined by the company’s founder, Oscar Farinetti, who runs a chain of popular Eataly stores in Northern Italy. There’s the giant, hastily decorated space (on the ground floor of the old Toy Building on lower Fifth Avenue), which looks like a cross between an earnest food-fair exhibition in Turin, say, and one of the darker quadrants of the Paramus Park Mall. The walls of Eataly are plastered with lots of temporary-looking signage describing the ingredients, regions, and purveyors of Italy, and on busy evenings, the angular layout can feel so overcrowded and confused that the staff hands out “How to Eat at Eataly” flyers, complete with detailed instructions and a tiny diagrammed map.
But once you’ve acclimated yourself to this quirky environment, you’ll find all sorts of unexpected pleasures. Mario Batali, who along with partners Lidia and Joe Bastianich is the conspicuous New York face of the enterprise, prefers the phrase “food temple” to food hall, and that’s almost true. The dining establishments are organized around food groups (e.g., meat, fish, pasta, vegetables), and the best of them are staffed by handpicked Batali cooks, like the great seafood maestro Dave Pasternack and the former Babbo chef Michael Toscano, who runs the kitchen at Manzo. Recipes tend to rely on sustainable, Slow Food sources, and many of the ingredients are for sale throughout the sprawling store. The idea is to taste a little (or a lot), become educated about Sardinian olive oils or the glories of Piemonte’s famed razza beef (the signs may look tacky, but I found myself reading them), then buy the ingredients and cook them back home (I did that too).
Le Verdure is the most original dining space at Eataly, and on crowded evenings, it’s the easiest place to find a seat. What you’ll find there are elegant little bricks of lasagne, laced with béchamel and Ligurian pesto (“This is really quite exceptional, Dad,” my aspiring food-critic daughter said); fat crostini heaped with black garlic and sweet late-summer corn (a special, on the day we visited); and platters of crisp, tempura-like fritto misto piled with cauliflower, long beans, and pink, thumbnail-size segments of fresh radish. If you’re in search of a little protein, wander over to Pasternack’s seafood restaurant, Il Pesce, where the menu includes crudo (gummy, over-refrigerated tuna, on the afternoon I dropped in), excellent antipasti (slices of salty sturgeon “bacon,” silvery sardines over cool peppers and onions), and a whole branzini, flash-fried and served over a layer of crunchy thin-cut potatoes.
The food at the chaotic La Pasta and La Pizza is slightly more prosaic, especially when you factor in the wait for a table. The al dente spaghetti in the classic, Roman-style cacio e pepe was described by the pasta nut on my left as “honestly cooked,” but tasted more of salt than pepper. The sixteen Neapolitan-style pizzas (fired in golden-tiled ovens, by real-live Neapolitans from an Italian pizza chain called Rossopomodoro) are honest, too, although nothing my fellow diners and I sampled (a brightly sauced but goopy-centered Margherita, a quattro formaggio with possibly too much Gorgonzola, a good Scisciana layered with ribbons of Parma ham) rose above the level of the other high-end Neapolitan-style restaurants in this pizza-mad town.
My least favorite dining spot at Eataly is La Piazza, where legions of salumi and cheese aesthetes stand awkwardly around rows of marble-topped tables, picking at butcher boards filled with bounty from the nearby cheese and salumi stands. But this didn’t keep me from purchasing tubs of milky fresh mozzarella (made daily, according to the sign) or a Tuscan-style Finochionna, then scarfing them down, furtively over the sink, when I got home. Ditto the single square-shaped Torta Dama (a kind of giant hazelnut biscuit) sold at the Pasticceria.
And where would you find a true multistar sit-down meal at Mr. Batali’s sprawling gastro-circus? The answer is the meat palace, Manzo, which you’ll find across from the fish stand, behind an Italy-travel-tour display. There you can taste an American version of Batali’s beloved razza Piemontese beef (from a ranch in Montana), served sushi-style in rosy strips or ground into a tartare with a quail egg on top. There are excellent offal-themed mezzaluna (try the ones stuffed with calves’ brains and ricotta), savory helpings of calf’s tongue garnished with frizzled leeks, and a version of cinnamon-laced cotechino sausage, which tastes like it’s been beamed in from one of the better butchers in Modena. Unlike anything you might find at the Paramus Park Mall, say, the plump veal chop at this food court ($45, from Pat La Frieda) is finished in burning hay. And if you order the beautifully marbled rib chop ($95 for two), it comes to the table with a little demitasse cup of beef jus and a side of perfectly formed, featherlight pommes soufflées.