Crowded, Overpriced, And Overrated
Ever since Eataly opened in New York back in 2010, I've been jonesing to go. I don't go to New York if I can help it. In fact, I drive around the place as much as possible, not being much of a fan of traffic, tolls, and crowds. So when they opened another Eataly location in Chicago, I was really tempted to make a pilgrimage. Not that Chicago doesn't have traffic or tolls or crowds, but, having grown up in Chicagoland, I can at least deal with them a little better. Then, lo and behold, the Batali and Bastianich partnership went and opened a brand new Eataly in the Prudential Center in Boston. Hot damn! Of course, New York and Chicago are closer to where I live by one hundred and two hundred miles, respectively, but I really like Boston – especially the North End – and have occasion to travel there a couple of times a year. So Boston it shall be for my Eataly initiation!
In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, Eataly started out in Turin, Italy in 2007. Now expanding worldwide, it is a huge open Italian market containing restaurants, grocers, bakers, butchers, fishmongers, cheese mongers, pasta makers, wine merchants and just about any other form of Italian food vendor you can think of. It's basically an Italian food hall on steroids. And since I live in a little town where the only Italian ingredients readily available to me are found in the “ethnic” aisle at the grocery store, a place like Eataly is a long-held dream come true. Sadly, the dream turned out to be more of a nightmare.
I had some specific items in mind when I arrived at the Prudential Center on a frigid December afternoon. My son had asked me for some help in perfecting his pizza dough, so I wanted some 00 flour. Since we were making pizza, I also wanted San Marzano tomatoes. I was drooling over the prospect of some wonderfully crusty fresh bread that I didn't have to make myself. I had in mind a soup that uses potato gnocchi. I was also looking for some real Italian-made pasta for a nice spaghetti dinner. I love my De Cecco and Barilla, mind you, but I was hoping to find something a little less.......common. I guess. Giddy at the potential prospects ahead of us, my wife and I got out of the car in the parking garage – thankful that we didn't have to venture into the sub-zero wind chill outside – and rode the escalator up to Eataly.
Pandemonium met us.
The crowds, even at two o' clock on a Thursday afternoon, were absolutely overwhelming. You couldn't actually choose where you wanted to start; you just stepped into the wave and hoped the tide carried you in the right general direction. My wife is not exactly agoraphobic, but I could sense her growing anxiety as she was bumped, jostled, shaken and stirred by the surrounding sea of humanity. It was clear that this was not going to be a pleasant, leisurely shopping trip. It was rapidly turning into an expedition; an exercise in survival. And then there was the fire alarm.
Almost immediately after getting swept into the maelstrom, a blaring klaxon began to sound and an amplified voice informed us that a fire had been reported in a retail area. We were advised to “stand by for further information” – at least I think that's what was being said. The crowd itself raised such a din as to overpower the announcement and the alarm, which continued to jangle our already jangled nerves as the attendant warning lights flashed. This went on for what seemed like hours, although it was probably about five minutes before the piercing racket ceased and the “all clear” was announced. Welcome to Eataly.
The map I had picked up at the door was useless; standing still long enough to consult it was tantamount to suicide by trampling. Looking around “together” was impossible. We each drifted wherever the current took us, occasionally breaking free and fighting toward something of interest. I swear to God I will never again complain about shopping at Walmart.
I have no doubt they had some wonderful stuff at Eataly, but I sure as hell didn't get to see any of it. All I saw were asses and elbows. I got twisted and bent in so many directions I'm not entirely sure the asses and elbows I was seeing weren't sometimes my own. Now I'm not browsing anymore. Now I'm on a mission: find what I came for and get the hell out of here. Alas, that was not to be the case.
They had exactly one bag of “Tipo 00” flour. Priced at $6.80 for 2.2 pounds. Outrageous, but I bought it. You see, you have to take out a loan to park at the Prudential Center in the first place, but if you buy at least ten dollars' worth of merchandise within you can get your parking validated down to only fourteen dollars for the first four hours. My little bag of flour got me a little over halfway there. The two packets of two-dollar spaghetti I bought got me the rest of the way to the goal. Or I could have bought one package of the stuff with Lidia's picture on it.
San Marzano tomatoes? Oh, they were there, but I could have booked passage to Italy and picked them myself for less. Same with the bread. I could have bought two or three loaves at the panetteria at Bricco over on Hanover Street for what one would have cost me at Eataly. Gnocchi? They had it, alright. Some was made with pumpkin and they had some stuffed with all kinds of stuff, but plain ol' potato gnocchi like I needed for my simple soup? Nah. At least none that I could see as I was driven through the fresh pasta section like a steer on its way to the Dodge City stockyards.
We were hungry. A break for a bite sounded like a good idea. We stopped at a sit-down place called La Pizza e La Pasta. How long is the wait? 90 minutes, you say? No, thank you. “Make a stop at La Piazza,” the map says. “Enjoy an aperitivo of wine and cheese, just like in Italy,” the map says. R-i-i-i-i-ght! What the map doesn't say is that you can fly to Italy faster. And cheaper. And with fewer crowds. I Panini E Le Ciabatte looked promising, but by then all we wanted was out.
I went to Eataly with the idea in mind of buying a few ingredients for a couple of simple meals. I couldn't find half of what I was looking for and I couldn't afford the other half. After all, I only had a few hundred bucks to spend. Overrated, overpriced, and thoroughly disappointing, Eataly was definitely not worth the seven hundred mile drive. No, I'm not crazy enough to make that kind of drive for a shopping trip. I was passing through the area anyway and only made a slight detour. But I won't go back to Eataly again even when I'm already in town. You know where I found my flour? A couple of blocks over at DeLuca's Market on Newbury Street. Three ninety-nine a bag. And there are shops and restaurants all over the North End that are equally well-stocked, cheaper, and a helluva lot more fun to visit. Give me Bricco Salumeria & Pasta Shoppe on Hanover Street or Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street. Nobody beats Mike's Pastry on Hanover Street for cannoli. And you probably won't have a ninety minute wait at Pizzeria Regina. Sure, it's not “one stop shopping,” but you know what? I don't care.
Eataly Boston: with apologies to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, remansit frustra.