(A selection of Luca Montersino's authentic pastries in the counter at Pasticceria in Eataly)
Eataly (200 Fifth Avenue)
I have now been to Eataly on six separate occasions for a total of probably twelve hours, yet have only really eaten there once. The first five times consisted of what amounts to hours of bewildered window shopping before my confused and growling stomach was so baffled that I had to leave for a restaurant with fewer options. Eataly, for an Italian food lover, is like taking a child to the flagship FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue and telling him to choose just one or two toys he might like for Christmas.
With the aim of making high-quality Italian foods accessible to everyone at fair prices, founder Oscar Farinetti opened Eataly on the ground floor of the old Toy Building by Madison Square Park, along with partners Mario Batali, as well as Lidia and Joe Bastianich. The result is a gourmet Grand Central station teeming with locals, tourists, and foodies in eager swarms, some there to shop for fresh ingredients and unique cookware to prepare food at home, others perusing the twelve various counters and eateries where you can dine within the food hall itself.
An enormous seafood counter offers every fish, crustacean, and mollusk imaginable. Or diners can grab a seat at Il Pesce where Esca's Dave Pasternack prepares his own renditions of Italian seafood.
The butcher counter and adjacent refrigerated aisles offer a garnet array of every cut, filet, and sausage imaginable. At Manzo, Eataly's only formal sit down restaurant, diners can even enjoy a 7-course tasting featuring dishes such as seared foie gras with crispy pigs tail, ravioli with roasted meat sauce and black truffles, and an entree of roasted loin, tongue, and tail.
There are rows and rows of every variety of dry pasta imaginable, as well as neighboring shelves of spices, infused oils, and vinegars, where shoppers meander the aisles sipping from glasses of wine purchased by the glass.
Fresh pasta can be purchased by the pound for preparation at home, or enjoyed at dining tables in La Pasta, featuring such dishes as a classic Spaggetone Cacio e Pepe, fettuccine with oxtail ragu, or lasagna with pesto and bechamel sauce. Last month, the counter even housed whole black and white truffles you could purchase by the ounce.
At La Pizza, diners wait in sometimes monstrous amusement park lines to sample varieties of classic neapolitan pizza from the two brick ovens. Pies range from a cheeseless Napoli TSG with tomato sauce, garlic, fresh basil, and oregano for $9 to a specialty pie with red onion, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and shaved grana padano (of DiFara fame) for $20.
Behind the neighboring focaccia counter, bakers prepare baguettes and rolls of delicious smelling breads in countless varieties, available for purchase by the whole loaf to take home.
While in line at a cheese counter that rivals any Whole Foods, watch as cooks shape glistening orbs of fresh mozzarella. There is even an area called La Piazza, an enoteca with standup tables where you can order cheese and cured meat boards, crudo, and glasses of wine.
An entire hallway of fresh produce offers strange varieties of mushrooms, violet potatoes, and multicolored heirloom tomatoes, as well as every fresh herb fathomable.
Or you might choose to stop by the paninoteca, cafe, chocolatier, or gelato counter. As you mill from station to station and drool over the dishes of seafood, cured meats, cheeses, homemade pastas, and antipasti, it becomes next to impossible to narrow down the choices, choosing just one place to sit and one or two dishes to savor. Thank goodness two very dear friends offered sympathy for my dilemma, and graciously gave me a generous gift card at Christmas in the hopes it would force me to finally treat myself. In an effort to avoid my prior conundrum, I simply booked a lunch reservation at Manzo, the only dining room partitioned away from the crowds, committing to select from that one menu's options.
Although the menu at Manzo is designed with a distinct spotlight on meat, "Celebrating Razz Piemontese Beef", an outstanding pasta tasting I experienced a few years ago at Babbo remains one of my favorite meals I have ever enjoyed, and so I decided to focus on the pastas prepared here by Mario Batali's protege, Michael Toscano, formerly of Babbo.
Rather than completely carb out on just pasta, we began with the seasonal isalata di stagione, a salad of exceptionally tender root vegetables and brussels sprout leaves, with a whipped parsnip ricotta and a drizzle of honey. Earthy, meaty, tender, bitter, and sweet, it was a garden of absolute deliciousness.
With the server's affirmation of our selection, we then split three of the pasta dishes between us. The first was a spaghetti alla chittara, created using a pasta "guitar" over which sheets of pasta are stretched and then pressed through the wires, creating thin strands that were prepared to al dente perfection. The ribbons were then lightly tossed in a peppery spiced tomato sauce with fresh basil, and crowned with buttery chunks of lobster tail, knuckle, and claw. Simple. Decadent. Phenomenal.
Next came the agnolotti del plin, literally meaning "pinched" pasta pockets. Tender Piemontese beef was tucked in each of the tiny pasta envelopes, tossed in a luscious brown butter with shavings of parmigiano.
Our final course was one I will remember for many years, the most exceptional gnocchi presentation I have ever tasted. Here, the light-as-air potato pasta pillows were tossed in a decadent herbed robiola sauce, a rich, soft-ripened Piemontese cheese. For an extravagant finish, the entire dish was blanketed with luxurious black truffle shavings. Unbelievable.
On the way out, I had to stop by the chocolate counter, where I indulged in the best deal in the whole place. There is an actual faucet that simply pours a stream of warm chocolate, specifically Bicerin "700", a rich, velvety, spicy Gianduja chocolate you can purchase by the cup for $1. With a plastic spoon and a cup of heaven, I headed out to hail a taxi. Thank goodness Eataly's offerings confuse my ability to make selections. Otherwise, you might see me there all the time. In the meantime, check out this incredible recent flashmob at Eataly...