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  • Eataly- Batali’s Newest in New York by Max Jacobson

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I appreciate what Mario Batali has done for the state of Italian cuisine in this country more than he realizes, especially for it in Vegas.

Batali, a Seattle native, is a college grad who studied in Spain and traveled exhaustively in Italy to procure the best recipes and products.  He has no peer in his efforts to bring top Italian foods to America.

Batali first became a star on the Food Network, and later created an empire. He currently owns three Vegas restaurants with his partner, winemaker and bon vivant Joe Bastianich: B & B, Carnevino, and Otto. He started and oversees with his Culinary Director-Las Vegas, Chef Zach Allen, Mario Batali Farmer’s Market. He has boundless stamina.

And now, he’s launched what may prove to be his most ambitious endeavor, the 20 million dollar, 45,000 square foot Eataly, the world’s largest artisanal food hall devoted to Italian food, cooking and culture. It’s a mind numbing effort.

Eataly-couldn’t they have called it something else?-opened August 31st at 200 Fifth Avenue, in a prime location situated directly across from a farmer’s market in Union Square, the heart of the Flatiron District. The building (it’s all basically under one roof save the rooftop beer garden) is divided into seven restaurants and many food sections, where one is able to shop for pasta, jarred goods, cured meats, cheeses and more.

Eataly Wine, located by the 23rd St. entrance (which wasn’t open when I visited-I had to enter on Fifth), will house over a thousand labels from every major wine region in Italy.

Beef is sourced by superstar purveyor Pat La Frieda, in collaboration with Sergio Capaldo, another meat star. There is a Rizzoli Bookstore on premises, a cooking school, and a retail section with kitchenware from Alessi, Bialetti, and other top names.

There are even two tourism companies in the hall, as well as the only Italian ATM in New York City. It makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

In fact, I visited twice. My first time was on a busy Saturday afternoon, when I ran in to buy some artichoke pesto and imported lasagna sheet pasta for a friend who was circling the block. Perhaps it’s the novelty, but I have to say the place was as crowded as Times Square at 11:50 p.m. before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. Nonetheless, the Check Out area ran smoothly. There are many counters (I didn’t count), and the wait to buy and run was minimal.

I got a better look when the charming Brooke Adams gave me a tour. That took place on a rainy Monday morning, just after opening. Pizzas were being cooked in the hall’s twin wood burning ovens, and a pasta counter was already filled with fresh pastas such as tortellini, gnocchi and panzerotti- all fabulous looking.

I ordered a panino (the singular of panini-I asked for one at DiRoberti’s on Second Avenue, a famous Italian bakery, and got a disdainful shrug from the third generation woman behind the counter-“we’ve said panini ever since I was a kid,” she sneered) at the eatery they call I Salumi e I Formaggi.  Soppressata and cheese. It was perfect.

Before leaving, I had a cappuccino at the Lavazza Café. Perfectly swirled with a brown and white cowl, it went well with my Italian biscuit made of hazelnuts, flour and chocolate. That’s my idea of a perfect morning.

But I left feeling overwhelmed and wondering if this concept will work in the long run. It’s certainly a gamble and I admire Batali for taking it. This isn’t the first Eataly. The original is in Torino, Italy, where founder Oscar Farinetti started the concept. He’s also a partner in this venture.

I’m thinking it could only play on these shores in New York, not in Vegas, certainly, but probably not in Chicago or L.A. either. Maybe it is a coincidence, but last weekend was also the weekend when the San Gennaro Feast is held in Little Italy. As I passed all the kiosks, and the restaurants like Il Cortile (which, unlike most places down here, is not terrible), I realized how far Italian food has come in the big cities here.

A lot of the credit for that goes to Batali, and his predecessors Tony May, Piero Selvaggio, and the late Mauro Vincenti, to name a few.  I’m just not sure that a Musee d’Orsay of Italian food is the way to go.

I couldn’t help thinking about Di Roberti’s and her forlorn counter of thumbprint cookies, Italian ices and chocolate cannoli. Batali has a line of products she couldn’t dream of and maybe wouldn’t even like. I take my hat off to Eataly but you’ll probably find me at DiRoberti’s.

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