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Life on the Corner: Eataly, Part 2

A nice pizza Napolitana

A month ago I wrote a brief essay about my visit to Mario Batali’s new Italian food emporium in the Prudential Center mall. That first visit was part of a press tour so we had Eataly all to ourselves and I was very impressed with the quality of the food and the overall ambiance. Molto Mario and his partners know how to cook and how to present Italian food to the masses.

I decided to give Eataly a few weeks to work out any kinks and make a couple of return visits. I was interested to learn if Eataly posed a threat to the North End which is one of the oldest Italian American neighborhoods in the country and a local mecca for Italian cuisine and groceries. At both return trips I was accompanied by my grandson, Ezio, who fancies himself an expert in pizza. He eats at Umberto’s at least once a week and when he visits his nonna in Italy she makes pizza for him the old fashioned way, everything fresh and homemade. I’m an espresso snob so those were the two items we concentrated on although we also sampled the fresh baked bread and panini. Here is what we found.

First of all, the place is a mob scene. There were so many people crowding the aisles it was difficult to navigate from one food station to another. I thought it would be nice to have a pizza but there was a one hour wait to be seated. Instead, we ordered a pizza to go and luckily found a small table in the main concourse. The pizza itself was excellent. My grandson rated it not quite as good as Umberto’s but certainly equal to my homemade pizza. All in all, a nicely made pizza but not better than what we have at several places in the North End.

The Lavazza cafe has two top of the line La Cimbali espresso machines. Fantastic coffee and hot chocolate.

Our next stop was the Lavazza coffee bar where I ordered an espresso doppio macchiato and Ezio had a cioccolato caldo con panna. The coffee was terrific, smooth, and rich and every bit as good as any I’ve had in the North End. Ezio went wild about the hot chocolate. He said it was like eating chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream out of a cup. The coffee shops on Hanover Street should make note of this and scout it out.

When Mario Batali spoke at the press opening he emphasized how he wanted Eataly to be an urban shopping mart, a place where city dwellers could stop by on their way home from work to buy fresh meats, fish, cheese and produce. This is a lofty goal and I did see a few customers actually shopping but the crowds of tourists and lack of shopping carts made it almost impossible to purchase bulk items. Like the Quincy Market and Boston Public Market, Eataly is devolving into a food court for curious tourists and bored suburbanites who want a safe, sanitized city experience. The space is beautiful and well planned. The food is excellent but what Eataly lacks is a sense of place. It’s a shopping mall, albeit a spectacular one, but being there is a disorienting and unsatisfying experience like visiting the Venetian in Las Vegas and pretending you’ve been to the Grand Canal. As good as it is, Eataly can never compare to the North End.

The streets and tenements of the North End weep with the blood, sweat and tears of generations of immigrants. Irish fleeing the potato famine, Jews escaping the Tsar’s pogroms, Italians leaving “la miseria” … all came to the North End as their first entry into the New World. Our neighborhood truly has a sense of place that can never be copied.

So, my message to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich is; benvenuti a Boston, guys, you’re going to make a ton of money here. My hope and expectation is you will attract all the tourists who are clogging the streets of my neighborhood. They’re our gift to you, the obnoxious duck tours, the annoying Segways, the fake trolleys and the nice elderly tourists with their walkers who take fifteen minutes to cross Commercial Street. They’re all yours, Mario and Joe, we’re sending them to Boylston Street and, please, don’t send them back. They are going to love your safe, sterile, air conditioned Eataly. I can hardly wait to be able to buy a couple of cannoli at Mike’s again and maybe I will finally be able to get a table at the Daily Catch or Neptune Oyster without waiting in line. Thank you Mario and Joe, I owe you one for this.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

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22 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Eataly, Part 2

  1. Love this! As a North End resident myself, I was supremely underwhelmed with Eataly. Very crowded and sterile as you said and there isn’t anything there that I already can’t get here in our neighborhood.

  2. I live in Back Bay on the edge of the South End; so Eataly is a welcome addition for me. I am hoping the crowds will thin, and I will go at non-peak times. For all that, the North End is still the best place for Italian dining and specialty grocery shopping. I am afraid I will still clog your streets from time to time (no walker yet). Thanks for an interesting review.

  3. Although I loved the pizza, I, too, was a bit underwhelmed. Too tight quarters for so many displays of food and much too crowded for my taste… was a bit disappointed at the long wait for the restaurant.
    Spoiled by Eataly in Rome which is spectacular … and with shopping carts!!!!!
    I will, I am sure, return to Eataly Boston many times , but with a less enthusiasm than had anticipated….. I wish them well!
    Great article, Nick.

  4. Nick – a great article from an excellent critic – love the picture of Ezio with the whipped cream decoration on his nose.
    Elizabeth

  5. As a local Bostonian whose Italian born grandparents and mother brought me to all of the great North End markets throughout my entire life (some that are not there anymore), I am saddened by this article. A lot of these tourists that you say you don’t need are the blood that keeps the North End as vibrant and successful as it is. Get rid of the annoying duck tours, the fake trolleys that promote your amazing neighborhood and the elderly people in walkers and you go from a 100 restaurants to half of that with many vacant storefronts. A lot of your favorite places won’t be around anymore since the people that keep them in business won’t be there anymore. You’ll go from a vibrant and culturally important neighborhood to one that used to be the gem of Boston. I completely understand the frustration of not being able to get into your favorite restaurant in the height of the tourist season but you live in a major metropolitan city, not some mountainside village in Abruzzi. If you love the North End as much of the rest of us, you should focus your time and energy on making your neighborhood nicer and more open instead of trying to close it off to the masses. Just a thought!

    1. You didn’t miss much, Paul.
      I also bought a loaf of prosciutto bread at Eatily and it was very good but nowhere as good as what I get at Frank DiPasquale’s bakery off Hanover Street. And, it was twice as expensive.

  6. Great article – I enjoy your columns. While I’ll never be considered a native, I’ve been in the North End for 18 years and am lucky and glad to still consider it home. And I agree – they can take the Segway tourists and oversized trolleys any day of the week. Maybe they can even move the new bike lanes there!

  7. Nick, thanks for the article!

    Kind of as expected – a heavily advertised chain with star power and money behind it moves into old town and immediately attracts a bunch of tourists. Who will now have even less of a chance to understand what this town is about. Why does it remind me of Dick’s Last Resort at Quincy Market?

    The concepts itself is also decidedly non-American. Not yet anyway. I’ve been to Japantown in SF and Chelsea Market in NYC and new Boston Public Market many times. They are trying. They are really trying. But, compared to Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, Östermalms Saluhall in Stockholm or a number of other naturally “there” markets/prepared food places, the ones in US just seem out of place and touristy, instead of being local and organic part of their cities. Maybe it’ll change some years later, but I just don’t think it lends itself well to US lifestyle.

    As far as comparisons to North End, that’s the exact point here – North End is organically there, old, not really fancy. honestly authentic. Everything Eataly is not.

    PS. Coffee. NE Coffee is a sore point. I learned to drink espresso in Milan and started making my own after simply giving up on trying to find good espresso in NE. The way it was explained to me, the Italian immigrants of 100+ years ago simply could not afford good coffee beans. So they made do with low quality beans that had to be roasted to a coal-like crisp in order not to be terribly sour and undrinkable. Thus, today, most coffee in NE is made of traditionally heavily dark roasted beans. I’m curious if you’ve tried espresso at Thinking Cup on Hannover. If not, I’d recommend it and would love to hear an opinion. Better yet, the George Howell’s little counter in Boston Public Marker serves great espresso as well.

    1. Completely agree, Mike. Eatily is in a tourist mall not a neighborhood so you have to wonder what they were thinking and who they wanted to attract.
      You are also right about the coffee, the coffee shops use much too dark a roast here in the North End. I like the Thinking Cup a lot. I have a Salvatore espresso machine at home with a high end grinder and I’ve been a fan of George Howell since he opened the Coffee Connection at the Quincy Market forty years ago.
      When I was a kid I lived on the corner of Salem and Parmenter Sts, right across from Polcaris Coffee. Raffaelle Polcari used to roast his own beans and I loved that smell. He also had an assortment of roasts from light to very dark and oily.
      I think another reason the old timers liked very dark roast coffee is they added anisette or Sambuca to it.

      1. Nick, try the Alchemy beans from the George Howell’s counter at Boston Public Market if you haven’t yet. They’ve become my default beans – very decent blend, inexpensive and properly roasted, of course. Their Ethiopian blends are great as well. And the kids working the counter are really nice.

  8. Someday you might be one of those elderly people who need extra time crossing the street – not cool hitting them with a low blow like that. Yes, Eataly is touristy – so what? Did anyone think that it would not be? I agree that it’s tough to find good coffee in the NE, and the pizza at Eataly is true to its roots – comparing it to Ernesto’s or even Regina’s is an apples to oranges comparison. Any shop owner in the NE has nothing to worry about as long as they are selling good product, regardless of Eataly’s presence. Eataly and the NE can and will coexist so let’s stop worrying about it and let’s stop bashing Eataly. I for one choose the NE, but I am also very happy that Eataly is here. All this criticism of Eataly stinks of fear.

    1. In my case, it’s not criticism. It’s more of a bemused surprise as to why it’s needed (well, no, I know why – to make money, which is a normal intention for any business).

      Would you eat at Times Square in NYC? There’s Bubba Gump Shrimp and other wonderful establishments to make every tourist from Alabama feel sophisticated and urban.

      1. Why is making money seen as something bad? What no one has mentioned yet is the drastic improvement over what used to be in that space. Gone is the airport-style, sad food court. I don’t hear anyone complaining that Sbarro’s is gone.

        1. Who ever said it’s bad? Pizza Hut makes a lot of money, so does Taco Bell. _International_ House of Pancake makes a lot of money. Some people even think that they serve authentic _international_ food, whatever that is. It doesn’t make me want to eat there for some reason.

          I have not been inside Prudential for a long time, but do remember that there was a passable sushi place there at some point.

  9. FYI not all rolators are connected to tourists. Having lived on Salem St for 45 years, I feel that my wheels and I take up less space than those walking 2 or more abreast and a lot quicker than most. As a property-owner, I guess I still have a right to exist in the community.

    1. Chris – property owner or not, you of course have that right to exist in the community. I’m sorry you have to put up with such comments.

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