x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Eataly satisfies all Italian food demands

The popular Italian and New York food emporium Eataly has opened in Dubai. The space combines multiple cooking stations with a cafe and gourmet farmers' market.

Sharmila Lama, left, and Bighneswor Parida prepare fresh pasta at Eataly. Sarah Dea / The National
Sharmila Lama, left, and Bighneswor Parida prepare fresh pasta at Eataly. Sarah Dea / The National

Mamma mia. What is it with the Italians?

If there’s one thing that epitomises the Italian way of life, it’s the refusal to scrimp on quality. And that goes double for Italian cuisine, which embraces fresh, wholesome produce, home cooking, regional specialities and the importance of provenance in sourcing ingredients.

Now, with the opening of Eataly, a food emporium that combines multiple cooking stations with a cafe and gourmet farmers’ market, we can all take a little piece of Italy home in the hope of our dinner guests exclaiming: “Delizioso.”

With 50 workers in the kitchen – including five key chefs flown in from Italy – Eataly opened its doors earlier this month in The Dubai Mall, a 2,000-square-metre homage to its sister spaces in Italy and New York.

The Eataly chain began life in Turin in 2007 in a rundown former vermouth factory. Founded by the electronics entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, it quickly expanded to 12 outlets across Italy, of which the biggest is a vast 8,000-square-metre complex in Rome, opened on the site of a former train station.

The New York site, which is more than twice the size of its Dubai cousin, followed in 2010 after Farinetti formed a partnership with the celebrity chefs Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe. Americans, many of whom can trace their ancestry to Italy, were quick to embrace its philosophy, and the outlet has since become an institution in its own right.

Italian wonderland

It has been dubbed “the Disney World of foodies”, while Batali calls it a “temple … where food is more sacred than commerce”.

While Batali and the Bastianich family have no involvement in the UAE venue – which is expected to be the first of several across the region – the franchise was brought to the Middle East by Azadea, which runs the Butcher Shop and Grill restaurants and Paul cafes.

“Even without advertising, we already have a lot of Italian customers,” says a spokesman for Eataly.

“A lot of customers are already familiar with the concept. We have tried to create a luxury shopping environment and somewhere you can enjoy products from all over the country in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. The emphasis is on the quality of food and authenticity of ­ingredients.”

That means importing the bulk of ingredients for its multiple restaurants and produce for the store from Italy, from aged Parmigiano vacche rosse made only from red cows to Pugliese burrata and olive oil and Gragnano dried pasta, made near Naples for more than 400 years.

Shop and snack

The outlet makes its own fresh mozzarella every day, as well as creating about 100 rounds of scamorza, a curd cheese made from cows’ milk and shaped into delicate pear-like baubles, which resemble Christmas-tree decorations. Hundreds of them are strung enticingly from the tiers of the cheese counter, which also sells grano Padano and pecorino ­Romano.

Eataly’s motto is “eat, shop, learn” and customers drawn into the brightly lit Dubai branch are given a pamphlet explaining how to shop and eat there.

“It can be overwhelming when you walk in,” says the spokesman. “Part of our job is to guide customers around and teach them where the food comes from.”

The Italian venues are homed in historical buildings, while the New York site has a rustic feel, with seven different restaurants under one roof.

Diners have to hop between venues to sample dishes in each, but, in Dubai, there are two central eating areas and one menu, offering customers the chance to order from its five restaurants.

They include a rosticceria with pollo arrosto (a roasted half-chicken) and prime rib beef to either buy and take away or eat in store, stands for paninis and piadina (traditional, thin flatbread from the Romagna region) stuffed with different fillings, pasta and pizza counters and gelato and coffee stations.

Customers have taken to standing at the coffee counter rather than sitting down, in the style of Italians, to order one of the 30 Illy concoctions on offer.

Dizzying array

Walk in and the first thing that hits you is the aroma from the focaccia stand to the left, featuring creations such as pizza Romano, garlic and rosemary bread and focaccia topped with sweet caramelised onions and olives, still warm from the in-house bakery.

But to the right, you are likely to be tempted by the dessert counter, with a dizzying array of delights such as Sicilian cannoli, tortino dama (giant hazelnut biscuits filled with ganache) and golosotto lampone, yogurt mousse topped with a raspberry gelee. A map behind the counter describes where each dessert hails from and, as with other food counters, there are little placards explaining the history of key dishes and ­ingredients.

There is also a shop with brand names including Alessi, Guzzini and Imperia, and an impressive mini-bookstore filled with Italian cookery titles.

Transported back

Rosilene Borgo Suffredimi, 55, from Genoa, has been browsing the aisles for the second day in a row and has brought her son Raffael, 24, for a ­pasta lunch.

“Although my family now lives in Brazil, I grew up with this food, as my grandmother is Italian,” she says.

“I loved the homemade pasta we had when I was growing up. This feels like being back in my grandmother’s house. It is amazing.”

Foodie favourite

Shelves are packed with yet more treats: Leone jellied fruits, Albergian jams made since the last century from fruit grown in the mountains near Turin, cantuccini biscuits studded with Piedmont hazelnuts and Bistefani’s Krumiri, traditionally dipped in a cappuccino for breakfast.

The store boasts 40 different types of olive oil, stacked around a 60-year-old olive tree in the middle of the shop, as well as 120 kinds of cheese and more than 70 types of pasta.

The most decadent extra-virgin olive oil is a Dh246 limited edition bottle of Roi Cru Gaaci (only 2,000 of the 500-millilitre bottles are produced per year), while a Giuseppe Giusti balsamic vinegar is priced at a staggering Dh478. Also on the shelves are pasticceria (pastries) from Milan’s famous 19th-century coffee house Caffè Cova.

“In Milan, you will see Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked outside the original cafe as customers queue for them,” says the Eataly spokesman.

“Italy also produces more than 400 kinds of cheese, more than any other country. We have noticed people who come in to eat then go on to buy the produce from the shop, as many of the ingredients on the menu are sold here.”

And for foodies, there is the chance to watch chefs hard at work. Franceso Crispo, the pizza chef from Naples, uses traditional Neapolitan recipes, Molino flour and Antonella tomatoes harvested once a year in Sardinia in his dishes.

“When people come here, they feel like they are in Italy,” he says. “We use the best-quality ingredients to get the best-quality food. The key to good Italian food is keeping it simple.”

Eataly is set to open in Chicago next month, then Istanbul. Managers in Dubai are staying tight-lipped about the next Middle Eastern outlets until next month’s official opening, but judging by the crowds, there will be plenty of customers seeking out la dolce vita.

For more information, call 04 330 8899 or visit ­www.eataly.com

artslife@thenational.ae