It’s a frigid day in Boston. Just the same, New York super-chef Mario Batali is poised at the top of an escalator in his signature pink shorts and orange clogs, a jolly ringleader welcoming followers to a preview tour of his newest culinary playground — the much-anticipated Eataly Boston, which opened Nov. 29, housed in the former Shops at Prudential Center food court. In the days before its launch, the air is heavy with anticipation: Passersby on Boylston Street pause to gaze at the construction and wonder what awaits within.
You’ve heard of Eataly by now. Maybe you’ve even visited the Manhattan flagship, a gourmand’s equivalent of a Broadway show: outsize, entertaining, maybe a tiny bit overwhelming, with dozens of stalls and shops hawking everything from simple pizza to obscure olive oils to tote bags. Ours is similar, though Batali’s team — which includes New York City restaurateurs Joe and Lidia Bastianich — has been careful to put a hometown spin on things. This isn’t just a Manhattan interloper. For instance, Barbara Lynch heads up the house seafood restaurant, Il Pesce. And there is an admirable array of local purveyors, from Island Creek Oysters to New England Charcuterie.
When the Manhattan version opened in 2010, it delighted food-savvy New Yorkers seeking an Old World shopping experience akin to marketplaces of yore, and with brand-name pedigree.
“This was at a time when grocery stores in New York were terrible. When Eataly opened, people were excited. More and more food information and knowledge had been growing in the country in general. . . . People knew more about these rare, exotic, wonderful foods at Eataly. They were better known and better loved,” says Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant based in New York and Sonoma County. “And [it had] the duo of Mario Batali and Bastianich, whom we really trusted to not only know about food but to also give us good food. Mario doesn’t have a bad restaurant. He’s engaging, smart, and witty, but he also knows his stuff.”
And with a shop of this scale, he must.
Some numbers: The Boston version is a labyrinthine 45,000 square feet, with 10,000 products, four restaurants, 10 casual eateries, two cafes, three bars, and a cooking school, spread out over three levels. On the third floor, there’s a restaurant, Terra, still shrouded in a bit of mystery. (Eataly’s partners say that it will open early next year, so as not to overshadow this debut.) At the helm of it all is Batali, the twinkly eyed pied piper eager to show off his newest baby.
“You have chosen us, and we have chosen you!” he shouts as the tour begins, but not before a lovely waitress materializes with prosciutto, Fontina, and basil crepes folded as carefully as an origami napkin.
Boston is hardly the only chosen city, however. There are 30 stores worldwide, with more to come. Founder Oscar Farinetti launched the first Eataly in Turin, Italy, in 2007, as a dining and learning center. Now there are branches from Chicago to Seoul. More are slated for Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Batali is a partner in Eataly USA along with the Bastianich duo, Adam and Alex Saper, and Oscar Farinetti’s son Nicola.
Still, Boston’s Eataly team has gone local in its hiring, too, with more than 500 employees, including 140 chefs, sous chefs, and cooks, drawing on a relatively small nearby pool. Many were hired from schools like Curry College and Johnson & Wales University. One notable hire is chef de cuisine Dan Bazzinotti, formerly at Cambridge’s BISq. Not everyone is a native, though: Eataly’s executive chef, Jason Neve, was culinary director at Batali’s Las Vegas restaurants, including Carnevino and Otto.
But today belongs to Batali and Lynch, doyenne of landmark Boston restaurants such as No. 9 Park and Menton. Lynch was brought in by her pal Batali to lead Il Pesce, Eataly’s 78-seat, seafood-centric restaurant, with input from Barbara Lynch Gruppo executive chef Michele Carter. (Each Eataly is dedicated to a local theme; naturally, Boston’s is the sea.)
“Lynch! Get over here!” Batali cries.
Lynch, decked out in a black tunic and leggings, skips toward him.
“He calls me the patron saint of Boston restaurants,” she says. He beams. And we’re off.
We pause at La Rosticceria, a rotisserie counter with local meats from places like Stillman’s Farm in Massachusetts and VT99 in Vermont, perhaps pit-roasted or brined. Order them in bulk or in panini while strolling the store, but please, don’t get creative with condiments. The meat is so flavorful that you shouldn’t need to.
“We just use a little olive oil or salt. No extra mustard here!” says Batali.
Across the way is a wine shop, home to 1,200 labels, plus Italian and local beers. This could intimidate the average shopper, but the room is festooned with helpful signs breaking down alcohol terminology, from lambics and sours to brut and extra dry.
Though hark: No time to linger over bubbles. Here’s Lynch, passing dainty portions of swordfish puttanesca over Vesuvio noodles. Eataly’s pasta is a particular point of pride, formed into various shapes inspired by Italian regions in an open kitchen; eat them at the 162-seat La Pizza & La Pasta restaurant, or buy them to go. Much of the dry pasta is imported from Gragnano, which is the birthplace of dry-pasta making, Batali notes.
“The pasta store separates us, and now you know where to buy it,” he says with a wink.
The puttanesca is splashed with the tiniest amount of sauce, so as not to overshadow the al dente pasta.
“We do not do extra sauce,” Batali explains. “The main event is the pasta itself!”
There’s also Neapolitan pizza — chewy and a bit tart, with a zing of tomato sauce and a splotch of creamy mozzarella, cooked for 90 seconds in a gold-domed wood-burning oven.
A moment for the mozzarella: Eataly is home to a “mozzarella lab,” presided over by fourth-generation cheese maker Lourdes Smith. Smith is a beloved figure in the Boston restaurant community, having operated Somerville’s Fiore di Nonno for years before closing in 2015. She supplied chefs and restaurants with her signature orbs; now they’re at Eataly, stretched daily by hand.
This kind of top-quality local purveyor is important, Batali emphasizes throughout the tour. This is Eataly Boston, after all, and he was careful to approve vendors you wouldn’t find in other cities. There are Island Creek oysters; salami and soppressata from New England Charcuterie; seasonal fish from Red’s Best and Wulf’s Fish; fresh ricotta and yogurt from Narragansett Creamery; meat from Savenor’s Market.
The idea is that customers can pause to chat and ask questions while snacking on a margherita pizza ($13) or handmade chips ($2.80), as if at their friendly neighborhood fishmonger or butcher — albeit housed in a behemoth market. Transparency and education are part of the mission at Eataly, hence those open kitchens, signs explaining each product, and a cooking school, where Lynch and Lidia Bastianich are among the instructors. “Eataly is a place where you can eat, shop, and learn,” promises a sign near the entrance.
“We know where every animal has been, and can tell you,” says Batali. “But you can also just get a chicken. You don’t have to talk about it. There are two kinds of shoppers — those who don’t want to talk to anybody and those who want to talk to everybody. Either is fine!”
Of course, lazy introverts can also buy prepared food to go at La Gastronomia takeout counter, where dishes are based on recipes from Bastianich and Batali. But that’s really not the point, Batali says.
“We don’t want you to use us as a deli. We want you to cook at home. You are empowered!” he shouts as we move into La Piazza.
“I feel like I’m in Florence,” one tour-goer murmurs.
This cluster of shops is modeled after an Italian city square, with storefronts offering seafood, drinks, and snacks. Order a glass of wine (in the $11 range), some shareable plates of meat and cheese, or a few oysters, and gab with your fellow Eatalians. It’s intimate and jolly, and will probably be immensely crowded, much like its New York brethren.
For now, though, there’s an air of calm as we’re spirited to the final stop on our journey: Lynch’s Il Pesce, where we’ll sample house-made spaghetti alla chitarra with Boston mackerel.
“Barbara knows the Boston customer,” says partner Adam Saper as we sit down to feast. “Mario knew Barbara, and Barbara is the best.”
Later, I corner Lynch before leaving.
How did she end up here?
“Why’d Batali come to me? The woman knows how to cook!” she chuckles, looking around.
She pauses a moment to take it all in.
“Imagine getting locked in here all night,” she finally says, making an eating gesture.
The patron saint of Boston restaurants looks a little dazzled, too.
More photos:Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.