Slow food beacon Eataly’s latest store is in Manhattan and is twice the size of the Turin original. John Ryan visits

The majority of people will be aware of the Slow Food Association, an international counterblast (with Italian roots) to McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC et al. Some may also know of the Slow Food retail temple in Turin dubbed Eataly, which opened in 2007, and aims to provide high-quality Italian food produced in a sustainable manner.

The man behind the latter enterprise is Oscar Farinetti, who formerly ran and owned the UniEuro electronics chain, which he sold to Dixons in 2003 to concentrate on getting Eataly up and running. The 30,000 sq ft Turin store was an overnight sensation with Farinetti becoming the Slow Food Association poster child. Smaller Eatalys then opened in Bologna, Pinerolo and Asti.

And there you might have thought things would have rested as, with the best will in the world, the majority of Italians still frequent large supermarkets with many continuing to sample the ephemeral delights of fast food.

In Italy this appears to be the case, as there have been no further outlets.

But in autumn last year, following a switch of continents and a local US partnership, a branch opened in Manhattan that, at over 60,000 sq ft, was marginally more than double the size of the original.

This Eataly is on Fifth Avenue, a byword for ambitiously priced real estate, but the cost of entry does not appear to have deterred Farinetti and his US partners, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, both chefs and restaurateurs. There has also been a fair amount of empty commercial space in Manhattan and this may have had a bearing on the trio’s ability to get hold of the right space in the right location.

Hustle and bustle

This large store has three entrances, one on the lower reaches of Fifth Avenue and others on 23rd and 24th Streets. It matters little which entrance the shopper uses to enter this market-cum-

supermarket-cum-restaurant, as the immediate sensation is one of noise, bustle and visual merchandising of the kind rarely found outside the brand’s home country.

The main ingress to the interior is on 23rd Street, where there are two sets of doors set into very different portals. This is because the store’s setting is a historic mid-town structure with a large number of neo-classical references - dictating the shape of the several entrances. And this provides a clue about what lies within, as Eataly is a retail-meets-restaurant experience that is perfectly in tune with the building that contains it.

There is also no mistaking the intent. The entire upper portion of one of the doors is filled with a graphic that states ‘Italy Is Eataly’, followed by a smaller message, ‘You Are What You Eataly’. It is food that dominates the image and although the prospective shopper or diner may notice the many marketing and point-of-sale messages used within, produce takes centre stage.

There are five restaurants in total. Each is dedicated to a different kind of Italian dining, ranging from Il Pesce, a New York take on seafood, to La Verdure, a seated counter and table area that serves Italian-style vegetable dishes. And if pizza springs to mind when the words ‘Italian’ and ‘food’ are viewed in close association, there are pizza and panini counters where product is served on a takeaway basis. For the linguistic pedants among you, it is perhaps worth noting that this being an Italian enterprise, the plural of a panino is panini, not ‘paninis’, as is the case in every UK station caff (panini, presumably being viewed as the singular).

Visiting at lunchtime, there was hardly a dining space to be had, in spite of the fact that by local standards much of what is on offer does not fall into the cheap eat category.

The point of the in-house dining, however, is that it serves as an adjunct to the retail offer. “We cook what we sell and we sell what we cook” is a message that is repeated more than a few times around this vaulted classical interior, and one that neatly encapsulates the connection between buying food and eating out while doing so.

Take your time

In a less busy moment, you’d be hard pushed to enter this Eataly outpost and not want to eat while shopping - which is rather the point of slow food: this is not about the rapid acquisition of provender. But if food shopping is the sole objective, this would not be regarded as an efficient environment by the standards of any British supermarket. It is not about aisles of food and rapid selection, but is more to do with traditional market shopping, where you stroll around and pick up ingredients that catch the eye and that, in combination, should add up to a decent meal.

To name but a few of the ‘departments’, as this is more food department store than supermarket, there are ‘Fresh Pasta’, ‘Fishmonger’, ‘Butcher’, ‘Mozzarella’ and, naturally, ‘Paninoteca’ (where you get your panini) counters, scattered around the space.

There are also elements you might not expect in this kind of store. A bookshop, dealing in cucina Italiana, an olive oil and vinegar shop-in-shop and ‘La Birreria’, a rooftop beer garden. The latter is as much to do with New York bar culture as with anything Italian and does point to the Italo-American connection that has been made in this store.

The real point about this new arrival, however, is that wherever you look, you stop and stare, owing to the care that has been taken with the visual merchandising of the product and the overall impression of abundance, rather than mechanistic layout.

It is fair to say very few shoppers in Eataly would be doing the ‘big (food) shop’ here, both price and the time involved would probably militate against this. However, a closer comparison might be drawn with the flagship Whole Foods Market outlet on Columbus Circle at the southern tip of New York’s Central Park. This is also about visual merchandising and abundant merchandising, but while it is certainly mouth-watering, it does not capture attention in quite the same manner as Eataly, as the link between dining and shopping is not so evident.

Eataly was packed and, by all accounts, generally is. And in the middle of the hubbub, there was Oscar Farinetti surrounded by a mob of Italian supplicants having a standing-up lunch in the heart of his store and talking animatedly. The phrase ‘Le Patron Mange Ici’ sprang immediately to mind. Anyone know the Italian equivalent?

Store facts

Location 200, Fifth Avenue

Size 60,000 sq ft

Description Cucina Italiana stronghold

Standout feature Graphics and visual merchandising package

Other Eataly outposts Turin, Bologna, Milan, Asti, Tokyo

Where next? London? You can only hope