Jeffrey Steingarten on Eataly: ‘They’re Going to Have to Be on the Edge for the Rest of Their Lives’
I almost never go to press previews because it seems to me that they're not my business, but I go if I want to be supportive or if I'm really, really curious, and here both were the case. It was spectacular. Mario and Joe had brought in their best people from their whole empire, from every restaurant. For example David Pasternack, who's the chef at Esca, was right there at the counter preparing crudo. I had a grouper with pistachio, an Alaskan wild king salmon with capers — I'm not totally sure about the “wild” and the “king,” since we're out of season for that — there was a bigeye tuna with olive oil, I think there were sardines or fresh anchovies as well.
There was a big pasta station with all this handmade pasta, and the person running that was Zach Allen from their Las Vegas restaurant [B&B Ristorante], and they were wonderful, delicious pastas. I had the classic raviolo of Turin, an agnolotti stuffed with pork, veal, mortadella, and covered with spinach pasta, not yellow pasta. It’s served with a brown butter and sage sauce, which is typical of Piedmont, and especially around Alba and Asti, which are the capitals of white-truffle hunting.
I spent an enormous amount of time at the pizza oven. I believe it's a similar pizza oven to the one they have at Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn, and to the one that Donatella Arpaia has built from scratch at her new pizzeria, which is not open yet. I do believe, and long have believed, that pizza is the perfect food. There's no other city like New York, where every block has a pizzeria where they're probably making dough from scratch. It's an unbelievable phenomenon, and I also find it very moving: On every street corner of New York there is someone, usually a man, who is performing a procedure that has not changed very much in 3,000 years. It has in the past moistened my eye to remember that.
The pizza wars — in Manhattan especially, though also Brooklyn — are really heating up. All the new pizzas — Keste, Motorino, Paulie Gee's — they're all making their pizzas in the Neapolitan fashion, which means the dough is almost never fully cooked. I remember when Ed Levine wrote his pizza book, in it he proposes that American pizzas can be better than Neapolitan pizzas. He thought that the pizzas he had in Naples had dough that was too soft, the crust was
too soft, some versions were just inundated with sauce. Even though Ed is my friend I was very skeptical about that — it kind of reminded me of the people who used to go to China and come back and say American Chinese food is better. But then I returned to Naples, and I began to feel that Ed was correct. Still the best pizza in the United States probably is Pizza Bianco in Phoenix — don't worry about that, [chef Chris Bianco] was born in the Bronx — but I think that the new Neapolitan pizzas made in New York are truly great, and Eataly's is wonderful.
I also had a piece of steak; the meat is supplied by Pat LaFrieda. I like their steak very much — they supply the steak to lots of people, among which is Minetta Tavern, which has some of the best steak in New York, certainly in Manhattan. The bread sticks that they had at Eataly were premade and pretty good. They had one made with corn, one regular wheat with lard, and one without lard. I've almost never had good bread in Italy. I suppose that sounds very prejudiced, but by and large, the bread in Italy, especially in the north, has too much yeast, it uses very refined white flour, and it's overkneaded so it takes out all the pigment and all the flavor that comes along with the pigment by oxygenating it. But bread sticks, especially when they're made with lard, are great bread. These little skinny things that you get in some Italian restaurant in a wax-paper envelope are terrible, but the first time that I went to Piedmont, where they were invented, I had real bread sticks. They're baked in these special ovens so they’re six feet long, and often they're served broken in half, two of them put on the table from one corner to the other because they're so long. The best ones are made with lard.
The thing that worries me is that I know that [Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich] are very particular about Italian food, and at a place like this all the people have to be at the top of their game all the time. I just imagine that would be very, very difficult. They're going to have to be on the edge for the rest of their lives, and it's very scary to imagine that. I spent all my time talking to the pizzaiolo, who has to go back to London in week. This is my concern: Many great people are going to have to return to their home bases, some to Italy, this guy to London, other people back to the rest of the empire. I just hope that they can maintain the very high level that I experienced there.