Thursday, June 21: opening day at Rome’s Eataly. Opening day, that is, for us ordinary folk; “i big” had their own opening a few days ago: the mayor was there, and the president of the province, and the president of the region, and the founder of the Italian Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini, and legendary pop star Gino Paoli, among others. The pols were there because they can’t resist a spectacle, and Rome’s Eataly, the largest of 19 Eataly’s store-restaurants around the world, is just that: 17 thousand square meters of space, encompassing 23 eating places, 40 areas devoted to teaching about food, 8 spaces where they make mozzarella or fresh pasta or bread, 14,000 products for sale, hundreds of employees, an anticipated 6 million visitors per year. They were there, too, to celebrate a project brought to fruition entirely with private funds. Slow Food’s Petrini waxed eloquent on that issue, suggesting that Eataly would be a “permanent Olympics” for the area, without costing the city a cent.
That’s mostly true, but not entirely. The building that houses Eataly was constructed with public funds. It opened in 1989/90 as the Air Terminal Ostiense, first to handle the traffic from the 1990 World Cup, then as the place that would connect tourists and others arriving at Rome’s far-away Fiumicino Airport with the city of Rome. Designed by Spanish architect Julio Lafuente in the grand, open, monumental style of Penn Station (now defunct) by way of the Baths of Caracalla, the postmodern structure fell on bad times from the beginning. Travelers had difficulty finding taxis, carting their luggage over (or under) the broad set of tracks to the regular railway station, or getting to the Metro; everything was close as the crow flies, but humans with luggage could only wish they had wings. It was not long before the station was abandoned for the purposes of the Fiumicino trade, and for at least a decade it remained empty. The more recent chronology is a bit murky: in 2009 and 2010 the Air Terminal was used, unofficially, to house homeless Afghani refugees; in the former year it was purchased by the financiers of Eataly. (Air Terminal Ostiense gets a brief mention in Rome the Second Time (the book) at page 68.)
While the powerful and yet playful exterior of Lafuente’s Air Terminal remains as he designed it, little—indeed, nothing—remains of the interior. The enormous, open halls of the original have been filled in, 3 floors added.
The spectacle remains, but it is of a different sort than Lafuente had in mind: rather than the spectacle of wondrous space, we have the spectacle of the 21st century department store, the spectacle of goods and services, of fashion and design, or products and packaging, of color and choice.
This is the spectacle of the worldwide furnishing giant IKEA, of an engaging, accessible, and sensible capitalism, there to make money, yes, but also to bring us what we need, what is best for us.
Eataly, of course, is all about food. But not just any food, and not just any Italian food. Eataly comes with a 9-point Manifesto (perhaps 10 would seem too contrived). Among its points: food unites people across lines of social class; high quality food improves one’s general quality of life; consumers should know the story, the history, behind the foods they consume; and high quality foods should be available at affordable prices (indeed, a recent advertisement promises, “At Eataly high quality costs half.”) There’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of “what we put inside our bodies,” as opposed to the things outside, and lots of talk about their “passion” for providing people with good food and how vital it is that people be “passionate” about what they eat. Substitute “home furnishings” for “food” and you’ve pretty much got IKEA.
|Fruits and vegetables, not a priority|
There’s lots to think about here. We know there’s some truth in the claim that the tensions of social class can melt away in the pleasures of a good meal. But one of Eataly’s markets is the very affluent consumer. At least one of its fourth-floor restaurants caters to the very rich, and posters announce series of 12 wine-tastings for 500 Euro. It’s hard to disagree with the idea that what we put in our bodies is important. But one of Eataly’s many food outlets sells pizza and another specializes in “fritti”—that is, deep fried foods, shrimp, calamari and meatballs (delicious – we know, we tried them) and other treats—that are very Roman but would seem low on the nutritional scale. Most of the wines sold at Eataly contain suphites. There’s a huge section devoted to the fatty meats—ham, mortadella, sausage—that Italians devour. And the fruits and vegetables department, where the produce is displayed under canvas tents designed to suggest an old-fashioned market, is tiny.
|Lots of choice|
We can’t really speak to the issue of whether the food available at Eataly is of “high quality,” or of higher quality than one can get elsewhere in Rome (that, after all, would be a sensible standard). Moreover, how would one prove such a claim? Mayor Gianni Alemanno, the conservative ex-thug not known for his cultured sensibilities, had no such doubts. Eataly, he announced, is “launching a model where one says no to consumerism, but yes to the quality of what one consumes.”
|Eataly's shopping carts and fashionably-dressed|
We have one more concern, possibly the most significant for Rome, and it emerges directly from the Eataly’s advertising. “Already,” says the company, “many Romans have taken to doing all their grocery shopping at Eataly” (hanno presso a fare la spesa completa da Eataly). If we thought that say, half of Eataly’s sales would be to tourists and foreigners, that would be one thing. But we found only one sign of any kind in English, the common language of Rome tourism; everything’s in Italian—a good indication that that’s the key market. If most of those customers are Romans, we can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen to the local meat markets, salumerie (essentially delis), and neighborhood markets that are now just holding their own against a growing number of small, chain grocers. At bottom, Eataly is just a “big box” store—an attractive and enticing one to be sure—ready, like all big-box stores everywhere, to destroy the little guys. That’s what they do.
|Eataly as spectacle|
|Supervisor (left) and employees try to figure|
out how to serve us our fritti. Opening day
We point out that Eataly was in 8 other cities in Italy
before coming to Rome, and that in addition to its highly successful New York
City operation, it has 7, soon to be 9 locations in Tokyo. Coming soon: Chicago, Los Angeles.
|How the Air Terminal Ostiense interior should have looked|
|Some sense of Lafuente's volume remains|