Flavors of Italy at Eataly
We spent last weekend in New York, savoring the sights, sounds and flavors of the city. Our hotel was in the heart of Times Square, surrounded by chain restaurants and pushcart vendors. Fortunately, we discovered authentic diners, local pubs and fine dining destinations to round out our Friday evening diet of baseball stadium beer. One of the most engaging discoveries was Mario Batali’s latest venture, Eataly.
For those of you who haven’t seen the stout chef in his many television or magazine appearances, Batali is one of the elite culinary talents to earn the designation “Iron Chef.” He adds Eataly - an artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace - to his empire of over a dozen successful restaurants. Don’t think this market is quaint or rustic; Eataly covers 50,000 square feet with aisle after aisle of groceries, a bakery, coffee stand, gelateria, bookstore, cooking school, five restaurants and rooftop beer garden.
Wandering the store takes hours, partially because of the crowds and almost-random placement of shelves and walkways, but more due to the enormous variety. You can find row after row of olive oils and balsamic vinegars that cost more than your weekly grocery bill, colorful mushrooms that look like alien creatures, and extensive collections of pastas, meats, fish and cheese.
Since the cooking school was not in session when we visited, we settled for watching the constant demonstrations of food preparation. The cheese man formed fresh balls of mozzarella, the pasta lady rolled and snipped gnocchi, the butcher skinned and trimmed whole rabbits, while chefs at several restaurants performed in open kitchens.
As seating became scarce at the main-level eateries, we went up to Birreria, the rooftop brewery run by a team of brewmasters that includes Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. For lunch, we ordered sample platters: seven cheeses, a half dozen salumis and pickled vegetables. We couldn’t choose a favorite cheese, but agreed the best flavored of the meats were the spicy hunter’s-style cacciatorini and tissue-thin slices of speck.
Speck, from the Alto Adige region of Italy, looks a bit like prosciutto, but is cured differently. First, the pig’s hind leg is deboned and the meat is cured with a spice mixture that typically features juniper and laurel. Then it’s dried and the process of cold-smoking begins: expose the meat to a low heat for about two or three hours each day. This way, the hints of juniper wood reach the inner layers of the meat to build a signature flavor.
Many recipes that call for speck use the ingredient as a salty, bright note in a creamy pasta or vegetable dish. In this application, you would cook or crisp the slices before adding the crunchy crumbles. I’ve tossed speck into a mélange of soft (somewhat bland) slices of sautéed summer squash to create color and flavor interest. It’s a great ingredient in warm vinaigrette over salad and works as a substitute for prosciutto in most recipes.
On our way out of Eataly after lunch, we realized even though we couldn’t take any of the enticing fresh foods back to a hotel room, we could safely bring home pasta and olive oil.
For the latter, I chose La Mozza. This extra virgin oil shares its name with Batali’s vineyard, known for its unusual varietals and blends.
The olive oil’s smooth flavor adds a lush layer to sauces and vinaigrettes.
Choosing pasta was far more challenging, until I picked up a recipe card that called for fregola. I could tell from the instructions that the ingredient was a type of pasta, but I couldn’t even imagine its shape.
A quick search on a smart phone showed colorful small pearls, a Sardinian specialty made from hard semolina wheat toasted after drying.
You can cook it like risotto, as in the tomato dish below or boil it first as in the salad (see photo) - either approach gives you a chance to feature its earthy, toothy qualities.
After these tasty discoveries from Eataly’s abundance, we can’t wait to return.
Fregola & Tomato
2 T olive oil
1 C peeled, chopped tomatoes
2 pressed garlic cloves
1/2 C chopped onion
1/4 C chopped parsley
2 C water
1/2 t salt
2/3 C toasted fregola
1/4 C grated pecorino cheese
WHERE TO FIND
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add tomatoes, garlic, onion and parsley; cover and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring often. Add water and salt; bring to a boil, uncovered. When the water reaches a simmer, stir in the fregola.
Simmer, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 12 minutes. Stir in cheese and serve, garnished with parsley sprigs.
4 C water
1/2 t salt
1 C fregola
1 T olive oil
1 C fresh corn kernels
1/3 C sliced scallions
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 t lemon zest
1/4 C olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
8 cherry tomatoes
4 lettuce leaves
Combine 1/2 t salt and water in a saucepan and bring to a rolling boil.
Stir in fregola and cook over medium until al dente, about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a heavy skillet until quite hot; add the olive oil and keep over high heat until almost smoking. Stir in the corn and cook until kernels start to brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in scallions; set aside.
When fregola is cooked, drain and stir into skillet with corn mixture. Whisk together lemon juice, zest and olive oil; drizzle over salad and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings and serve on lettuce leaves garnished with cherry tomato halves.
Yield: 4 servings. *Note: adapted from Eataly’s Collectible Recipes, Pasta #14.