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.
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.