Eataly is in the eye of the beholder: In the past couple of weeks, it's been called an indicator that the recession is ending, a sign of the apocalypse, and a doomed celebrity showcase. Given that I'm neither an economist nor a soothsayer, all I can tell you is this: Eataly is a damned fine grocery store. It may be fifty times larger than the Italian groceries that my mother sent me to, but it is a grocery store all the same. (My mother refused to go into one herself because she thought that the Parmesan smelled like baby puke. I thought it smelled like heaven.)
Yes, Eataly is sprawling and somewhat oddly laid out. The center of the store is filled with tables--served by a variety of restaurant stalls that I hope to investigate on a further visit--occupied by diners and winers chatting and observing the passing scene. Charming enough, but stick to the perimeter, where the actual food departments live. It is sometimes clogged with tourists and gawkers; as with Dean & DeLuca and H&M, weekends are best avoided.
While there is an unending riot of Italian soft drinks and beer, not to mention the more obvious olive oils, pastas, cheeses, and spumoni (how did I miss that?), a lot of what you'll encounter is just fine foodstuffs. There's nothing intrinsically Italian--or French, or Moroccan--about a lovely nectarine. Or oysters, or lamb. Or a crunchy, just out-of-the oven loaf.
The prices don't seem unreasonable to me, or perhaps I am still startled after paying over five bucks for three onions at my local grocery yesterday. The seafood prices seemed in line with, say Citarella. I got a gorgeous mozzarella ball for $3.50. You will notice more strollers than shoppers, which should make your trip to Eataly relatively easy--I was in the cashier line for less than a minute.
I have a sad history with coffee shops, at least as an employee. My first job, at an independent joint on Kings Highway owned by a fat, pig-eyed man of indeterminate Mediterranean ancestry, lasted something under an hour. My boss pushed me against a wall while I was donning my pink polyester uniform in the dank icy refrigerator room in the back. I managed to escape, but not before tossing several racks of freshly iced doughnuts into a shopping bag as I raced for the door and the B2 bus.
My next--and last--doughnut-related job was also on the three-hundred year old thoroughfare, but in a far more pleasant and emotionally salubrious place: Chock Full o' Nuts. I worked for a very different kind of boss there: a fifty-something woman with violently dyed black hair, who told me that she had eaten a Chock Full o' Nuts hamburger for lunch every day for the last twenty-five years. Alas, I would not approach her record. In fact, I wouldn't even make it until lunchtime. My astonishing incompetence in calling orders to the kitchen (perhaps I should have joined my high-school debate society, mentored by the future scourge of Manhattan, John Sexton) led to the delivery of six toasted corn muffins to one very surprised old lady. It was then I decided that my parents were correct, and that high school should remain my sole job for the present.
I didn't hold my short-lived cakery career against Chock Full o' Nuts: I was pleased to see a Chock in Hoboken but, alas, it was a scaled-down Chock Full o' Nuts Cafe. When I read that a full Chock would be opening on West 23rd Street, I was delighted.
I didn't venture into the dining area--all I wanted to score were those legendary whole-wheat doughnuts and a date-bread cream cheese sandwich. The scene was a bit chaotic, which is understandable for a place that will not be officially open until mid-October, but the decor hit every high note in my nostalgic Brooklyn soul: bright yellows, dark wood, and lots of black and white photos of a working class New York. (Not to mention black and white cookies!)
When I opened my mouth to order, a man behind me requested a cup of coffee. When the counterman turned to pour it, I sputtered angrily, "Do you just pick people at random to serve? I was ahead of him!"
He replied, "That's the owner." Oh. I wasn't sure if that made matters better or, worse, but when I turned around to meet Joseph Bruno, a big bear of a Brooklyn native whose accent was redolent of home, all I could say was, "I'm so thrilled to be in a Chock Full o' Nuts again!" Bruno thanked me, and we chatted for a bit. He had often gone to the Chock on Kings Highway, although not during the morning I worked there. He told the counterman to "take good care of her," and to toss an extra doughnut in the bag, "from me."
The doughnuts--cake, by the way, not yeast--were exceptional, with a crisp outer shell surrounding a light, slightly nutty, interior. Two for ninety-nine cents. A great deal, for sure.
Due to the large demand from date-nut sandwich obsessed customers, the place was out of cream cheese, but that's okay: I couldn't have grinned any more than I did as I walked downtown, knowing that sometimes, even in Manhattan, a place can still come along for us. Not the tourists, not the hipsters, not the SATC girls, just us. And that's more than enough for me.
(Sorry about the single crappy picture. I ate the doughnuts before I remembered to take their portrait.)