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Eataly: Gluttonous food court or gourmet grocery store?

Eataly: food court or grocery store?Eataly, of course, is the much-anticipated aria to Italian gastronomy that partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich just opened in a molto grande Flatiron space. At 50,000-square feet, with aisles of hand-picked Italian packaged goods separated by a dozen dining areas, this feels like a Molto Molto Mario production. We oohed and aahed at the size of the place, the high-gloss design, and the odd aesthetic—Duty Free shop meets the Epcot Center’s Italy Pavilion meets Italian covered market. And then we lost count of the number of restaurants in this food fantasyland.

Turns out, there are seven restaurants and four food stands. But don’t go with a vegetarian if you like crudo; and fish-lovers will not be happy dining with people who just want a pizza. The restaurants exist like hermetically sealed culinary compartments. If you get a seat in the La Verdura, you’ll be eating vegetarian, while meat lovers gorge on soprasseta in totally a separate area. And if you want fruite de mare you eat in yet another area. You get the picture.

Eataly charcuterie and wine
Charcuterie and wine beats deli sandwiches at their desks

Eataly’s real estate is 70 percent dining experience and 30 percent food retail. So reading Batali’s recent comments to the Wall Street Journal about how Eataly exists to support home cooking felt especially at odds with what he’s actually created. Batali insists, “This isn’t a selection of restaurants under one roof. This is a retail store where we peddle the greatest of Italian gastronomy to people who want to eat it and know how to appreciate it. You ask any Italian and all of the smart Americans where the best meal they ever had in the last ten years was, and it was never in someone’s restaurant. It was always in the house.” He said a similar thing to the NY Post.

Yet most of the foods Mario’s selling are prepared. Is cutting up mozzarella for a Caprese salad really home cooking? It’s great that he’s selling organic rice cakes from Italy, but what do you make with those? The produce area is, frankly, abbreviated and the much heralded vegetable butcher, installation artist Jennifer Rubell, was conspicuously absent. Twice. Would three times have been a charm? In fact, the produce area, which is tucked into a poorly lit vestibule, was virtually empty—no assistants to famously trim the artichokes and hardly any shoppers. There are no artfully staged stacks of almost dirty carrots to make you feel like you must have them like at the green market. It’s like Mario left the fresh farmer’s market presentation, to, well, the farmer’s market.

Hello?? Anybody home?? A big work station for a fake job?

At least Eataly’s 11 eateries cook with what they sell—a giant sign over the almost-bespoke bottles of organic milk tells us. And the Paninoteca flaunts an explanation that these $8 pressed sandwiches contain 50 percent less salt than most. (They’re also half the size of the American version.) At the Rosticceria, hormone-free chickens are raised and fed better than American school children.

And this concludes Batali’s nod to health—a nod to sourcing, a disregard for overall nutrition. (Kind of like his support of Meatless Monday, where the chef added two vegetarian dishes to the carnivorous menus at his restaurants.) Batali has never been one to go without. And with Eataly, he’s built another Mecca to meat, carbs, and cheese. And now, you can take the orgiastic Italian feast home with you. Yay? —Alexia Brue and Melisse Gelula

Eataly, 200 Fifth Ave., between 23rd and 24th Streets, Flatiron,