Back in 2007 I was lucky enough to witness the beginnings of a quiet revolution. On the edge of Turin, in the Lingotto district, an old vermouth factory had been transformed into the very first slow-food supermarket and all very seductive it was too. Every section of the old factory had become a local food specialist: pasta, pizza, cooked meat, deli, fishmonger, cooked fish, vegetables, gelato, wine and cheese rooms all stitched together with some elegant architectural glazing to create a somewhat chaotic but authentic Italian whole. Eataly was born and I don’t think that truthfully anyone understood its importance.
Once the crowds started to arrive it made much more sense. This was no gourmet supermarket, this was a giant eating space, a foodhall. Hundreds of locals rushed in like the tide to sit at the various bars, watch the food being cooked and chat to their friends over lunch. Ridiculously simple and yet somehow unique. And then, within an hour or two they had all rushed out again, only to return in the evening. Each food counter would have a choice of two or three dishes (at most) and everyone glugged on either water or the local Barbera wine. ‘Can we have this in London please?’ I remember saying to my foodie companion.
The next day we were taken on a tour of the Slow Food University (actually called the University of Gastronomic Sciences founded by Carlo Petrini) and watched in awe as bushy tailed students leant their retro bicycles silently against the ivy clad walls.
The slow food movement is a gentle but reactionary backlash against fast food culture and the commercialisation of food and yet it has given birth to one of the most ferociously ambitious food brands ever.
Three years later we came to the launch of Eataly New York. ‘How can you possibly graft this gentle concept of local food onto Manhattan’s crazy fast-food grid filled with pizza and burger joints?’ I asked myself. I did not wait long for an answer. Like the first gush of espresso steam any doubts evaporated almost instantly.
Yes there are tourists, lots in fact, but they rub shoulders with the locals and the out of town visitors and the business lunchers standing at the high tables and at the food counters. They pack tightly into the central ‘piazza’ because they all want exactly the same thing: real food. They want the reassurance and the satisfaction that they are eating as good as it gets, and they’re happy to pay for the privilege.
Eataly oozes quality, authenticity and expertise so after a couple of decades of health warnings its timing is perfect. Don’t get me wrong, it can also be a hell hole when at peak times there really isn’t enough room to wave a small salami above your head, but that’s exactly the reason we must try and understand it.
As the supermarkets wage yet another discount price war at one end of the market and as the fine dining tablecloths look increasingly out of place at the other, Eataly offers us something real. And what’s more we want to share it with other like minded, slightly frustrated souls. Look at a supermarket. What does it tell us about what we truly want? It tells us we want it cheap and quick. Eataly, by contrast, reminds us that alongside quality we also want something the supermarkets long ago forgot: community.
The supermarkets still expect us to struggle up and down their silly long aisles before we get to unload onto the conveyor belt, pack, load into the car and unload again. No wonder online grocery is doing so well.
For the sake of balance, it’s not perfect at Eataly. The sense of it living right on the edge of chaos still pervades, as if at any moment, like a highly strung Ferrari, it might just go pop. There are signs too that the single minded Farinetti vision has become slightly blurred: the wine lists are over-long, the menus seem to get longer too. Some of the staff have even started to show signs that dealing with the crowds has become a bit of a chore…and this can be very dangerous.
Barely a block from Manhattan’s Eataly is the brand new Fairways supermarket. On the plus side it has an instore baker, a fabulous selection of cheeses, an olive oil bar and even a lunchtime sandwich counter. The problem is that the staff are so miserable that it’s difficult to use. Let’s hope that as slow food gathers momentum it stays happy.
The news that Eataly will be taking a big slice of Westfield’s food space at the new World Trade Center means New York will be the only global city with two Eataly stores! I’m assured that it will not simply replicate the Flatiron offer so it will be fascinating to see how the brand develops and what else they bring to market.
And so, the Eataly train just keeps on rolling: Rome, Chicago, Istanbul, Milan and despite all the cultural differences, the various diets and doubters there is one very reassuring, binding factor that simply must be true: the love of real food is universal.