Friday, October 1, 2010

Eataly -- not for the feint of heart!

A year or so ago I heard Mario Batali talking about his wonderful new venture -- an extravagant homage to Italian food -- so I was really excited when Eataly opened in NYC a couple of weeks ago.  I couldn't wait to go and take my kids to see what Mario had put together. I read reviews, salivated over menu items, mapped out my route through the store on the floorplan, and planned what we were going to eat.

Kate was out of town last Saturday, so Glen and I grabbed our 11-year old son and headed off to eat at Eataly.  It was everything I imagined it to be and more...and less.  Every inch of the 50,000 square feet of floor space was packed with people, food, waiters, staff, displays and tables and chairs.  We watched a chef pull warm mozzarella and mold it into balls; we tasted freshly sliced salami; our eyes widened at the sight of many different kinds of pastas, and our mouths watered over all the wonderful smells coming from the various food stations.

To keep my son happy while we wandered around the store, we planned to start at the gelato station.  Unfortunately, the machine was down, and we were told it wouldn't be up and running the rest of the day.  OK, plan B -- find some cool Italian soda to tide him over.  We found soda -- we think it was cool because it was labelled in Italian, but we don't know what flavor it actually was because there was no translation.  We tried to buy a single bottle, but we were told that this was a grocery item, and we'd have to go through the check out line -- we couldn't buy it at the coffee stand or the paninini bar. OK, Plan C. We carried our single soda around the store in search of the pizza/pasta counter.  It turned out to be a sit-down/waitered space inside the grocery store, so we put our names on the list and were told to come back and check in an hour. They wouldn't take our phone number, and there were no cool gadgets to hand out to alert us when our reservation was available.  So we decded to check out the other food stations. We worked our way over to other stations, but there were long lines to get in, and many of them were also waiter-only.  We thought about the Panini station, but it was too crowded to stand and eat it at the limited number of tables available.

We finally decided to head for the Pizza To Go window, which meant that we had to go through the check out -- and pay for our soda -- and go outside and around the block to another window.  We got out side with our soda bottle, but it was a pop off, not a twist off, so we went back in to the cashier and asked to have it opened. We were told that since this was a grocery item and not intended to be consumed in the store, that they couldn't open it for us.  Plan D.  We went to the To Go window and ordered a personal pizza for my son, and the nice cashier found a bottle opener. (Note -- there was no soda or water available to be purchased at the To Go window, so I'm not really sure why the cashier had a bottle opener, but I was glad he did!)  About 35 minutes later our pizza came out - along with 10 other orders.  The woman who brought the pizza boxes to the front could not actually hand them to the customers -- she apologized, but said it was not her station.  The overworked cashier was busy taking new orders, but stopped a few minutes later to hand out the cooling pizzas.

There was no place in the To Go section to eat, so we took our pizza to Madison Square Park and sat on a bench for Dash to eat it.  After all that, we expected something really spectacular. What we got was a super-soggy dough topped with canned tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.  If there were any seasonings in the sauce, they were very subtle. (I have a new appreciation for every Ray's in Manhattan!)  On top of that, we realized that we had no napkins. There weren't any on the counters in the To Go shop, and the cashier didn't hand any out.  We ended up buying a gelato for Dash from one of the food stands at the park, and getting extra napkins.  (NOTE: A couple sitting on the park bench next to us also had To Go pizzas, and they threw theirs out.  We asked where they got napkins and they had stopped at a deli to buy a bottle of water and picked up napkins there.)  Glen bought an amazing roasted corn on the cob at another food station, and I bought a grilled chicken from a corner GYRO stand -- where I also bought bottled water for us to drink.  It was not exactly what I planned for lunch, but we had run out of Plans!

So, to Eataly or NOT to Eataly?  I think there are some amazing things going on at Eataly. If you want to buy groceries to take home, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything fresher or more Italian than what's on hand at Eataly. And I'm not really giving up.  I am just putting my return visit on hold -- I think that every new venture has a few kinks, so I'll venture down to Eataly again in a few months. Hopefully, the gelato machine will be working by then!