George Howell Coffee
Imagine all the bottegas of Italy—the salumerias, the pastificios, the caseificios, the hole-in-the-wall shops tucked into cobblestoned streets. In your dreams, mornings are spent bouncing from one to another, bread loaves and plump tomatoes overflowing out of a basket. Now imagine stuffing a hundred of those tiny spots into an open-air, cathedral-ceilinged space in a Boston shopping mall. Less romantic? One might think.
Launched by entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti in 2007, the Italian grocer’s original home was in a sprawling, shuttered vermouth factory in Turin—but it was only a matter of time before the concept crossed oceans. Mario Batali and restauranteurs Lydia and Joe Bastianich teamed up to launch a mammoth New York City outpost in 2010, and expansion has been nonstop ever since. You can now peruse Eataly aisles in Istanbul, Sao Paolo, and in the middle of the sea (aboard the MSC Preziosa cruise ship).
There’s something very American—or very global—about what Eataly offers in its scale, statement, and convenience. But this is no linear supermarket aisle: Self-contained nooks and crannies somehow convey the intimacy of those tiny bottegas. In stations scattered along the perimeter of the store you’ll feel, for a moment, like the rest of the sprawling market has melted away. Crowds linger in front of the Panificio’s browned loaves stacked to the ceiling, inhaling its wafting bready aromas; the Macelleria’s delicately stacked cuts of meat cast a pink glow on the eager customers waiting to order.
And then, enveloped by hanging prosciutto legs, there is a mountain of gold: the towers of Parmigianos and Stravecchios that comprise the cheese counter. Nowhere else in Boston has so many alpeggios represented or Montasio wheels stacked so high. After browsing the 700 cheeses on offer, watch workers stretch fresh mozzarella behind a kind of glass aquarium—and then shop for the very same orbs you ogled as they were formed.
That kind of immersive experience makes Eataly stand out. “It’s unique in its genre,” says communications associate Serena Bronda. “You can eat, shop, and learn all under one roof.” No surprise that founder Farinetti established a collaboration with Slow Food—the original international sustainable food organization—before launching the company, a partnership that continues to this day. Its influence is embodied in an emphasis on education: A built-in school, La Scuola, hosts cooking classes; signs throughout the store offer explanations of regional specialties; an on-site bookstore encourages shoppers to continue learning at home.
Browsing the sheer variety of products on offer from each of Italy’s 20 regions is a learning experience in itself. You may have known that pasta comes in lots of shapes (at Eataly, you’ll find 70)—but did you know that pesto is a regional specialty from Liguria that traditionally comes in several different colors? Imagine emerging from a corner stocked with adorable bottles of artichoke and olive spreads and stumbling on a wall stocked with 200 Italian extra virgin olive oils. Is life long enough to taste everything Italy has to offer?
New England, however, is not forgotten. Local products span the store, particularly in the seafood section, where catches from Maine to Connecticut are bought whole and butchered on-site. Veggies from nearby farms line the shelves of a fresh produce section, while wheels of cheese from across the region share shelf space with Italian classics.
To run its more upscale restaurants, Eataly has also snagged two of Boston’s most prolific chefs. With the legendary Barbara Lynch at its helm, Il Pesce is a kind of cross between B&G Oyster and Sportello, where the Southie native chef showcases her mastery of both seafood and Italian cooking. Dan Bazzinotti, formerly of BISq and Bergamot, is chef de cuisine at Terra, a restaurant set up on a calmer, airier third floor that focuses on cooking with a wood-fired grill.
In its more casual spots, crowds bustle from lunch until dinner. Bronda, a Liguria native who relocated to work at Eataly Boston, compares it to a piazza—“that’s the central square in Italian towns where people of different generations, from kids to elders, gather to share wine and food,” she explains. “It’s a convivial ritual, part of the Italian tradition.” At the aptly named La Piazza, diners bask under skylights while munching on tempting cheese and charcuterie platters and sipping cocktails. The cozier corner of La Pizza & La Pasta, with warmth emanating from rustic wood-fired pizza ovens, draws in shoppers with promises of house-made pasta dishes and Rossopomodoro’s certified Neapolitan pies.
In spite of Eataly’s grandeur, Italian eating is beautiful simplicity—which is why it’s just as fun to forego those sit-down experiences in favor of a smattering of groceries: a wood-fired semolina baguette, a wedge of Fontina d’Alpeggio, some freshly sliced coppa, and a can of Pollastrini di Anzio sardines. After dipping into the wine shop on the way out for a $15 bottle of Cleto Chiarli’s effervescent Lambrusco di Sorbara, we dodge past the lingering crowds and away from Copley Square to a quieter place to while away the afternoon.