Italy isn't Eataly
Inventing Italian Cuisine. Words by Sean Wyer; Illustration by Josh Harrison
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“We have made Eataly; now we must make Eatalians” the founder of Eataly may have never said, but surely thought as he surveyed the cavernous and empty Liverpool St branch of Eataly during lockdown. The London branch of Eataly is less a shop than a whole ward of Broadgate, a retail space so big that by rights it should be located just off the North Circular Road but is somehow right in the middle of things. The first time I went I had to marvel at the ambitious scale of it, the hubris. It was soon after shops had opened up again, and although it wasn’t empty, there was still a lot of space to be filled. I wondered who the target audience was. ‘Surely there are enough Italian produce shops in London to make this kind of thing obsolete?’ I said to myself, thinking about Borough Market just down the road, and De Calabria with its shambolic but always excellent selection of heritage grain pastas and pickled vegetables. I wandered around it’s aisles, traveled up its escalator surrounded by Wendell Berry quotes (like I was at the London Planetarium, except for agriculturalists), bought a few gianduja pick ‘n’ mixes and went home.
The next day, Sadiq Khan officially opened Eataly by cutting a huge ribbon of fresh pappardelle (you can accuse Eataly of many things but being ‘too subtle’ is not one of them). I went to Eataly again and there was already a queue just to get in, which irked me as I didn’t want to be seen as thirsty to wait in line for what looks like a gigantic Italian Pret. ‘I am not like you’ I wanted to say ‘I am here to browse the Natoora melons ironically’. After 15 minutes looking around the admittedly impressive biscuit section, I had the slow realisation that everyone around me was speaking Italian. That in fact, everyone was Italian. I had assumed that the sole target audience would be office workers and people getting the train to and from Liverpool St, but that was just my snobbery. Perhaps what Italians want isn’t the small scale producers found in London’s markets sold by a communist artist; perhaps what they want is Eataly.
Today’s newsletter by Sean Wyer is about Eataly and its role in evangelising a coherent vision of Italian food within Italy itself; a vision that is both hyperregional and national. I wondered which vision of Italy is more truthful: the one at De Calabria, fiercely regional, small scale, handwritten, conjuring up the image of a precipitous market town by the Ionian sea; or Eataly, with its regimented, indexed display of everything from San Pellegrinos to Super Tuscans. Some might say Eataly is a success because it knows the soul of a national cuisine is not really in small producers, in its absolute best produce and most traditional methods, but in the food that the median person might miss and look for if they were in another country, in an expansive vision of ‘slow’ Italian produce that has room for ham from a protected and designated region and a carton of Baci. Others might say that with a few acres of floor space on the most expensive real estate in the city, Eataly just knows what makes bank.
Inventing Eataly, Inventing Italian Cuisine, by Sean Wyer
The Italian author Italo Calvino was fond of creating characters who were ill at ease in the accelerated modern city. In one of Calvino’s vignettes, signor Palomar has some particular cheeses in mind, so he heads to a specialist shop. Inside, he becomes desperate to understand each and every cheese, to be sure that he is making the perfect purchase. He tries to make sense of the various cheeses, jotting down their names and sketching their identifying features in his pocket notebook. With just three cheeses catalogued, his turn in the queue arrives. The cashier presses him to make a decision; the customers behind him are beginning to get fed up. Panicking, signor Palomar ‘falls back on the most obvious, the most banal, the most advertised, as if the automatons of mass civilisation were waiting only for this moment of uncertainty on his part in order to seize him again and have him at their mercy.’
Signor Palomar would likely faint if he ever walked into Eataly, the enormous Italian superstore that opened in London’s Broadgate this spring. I was overwhelmed on my first visit to the chain’s then brand-new Rome store in 2012. To explore the cavernous, glass-fronted Eataly – an escalator’s ride from the imposing Roma Ostiense station – is to explore another city, floating just above the ancient capital. Yet the city metaphor is insufficient to describe Eataly, which in fact is more like a sovereign state. Its motto, after all, is ‘Italy is Eataly’. Read out in a strong Italian accent, with a close front, unrounded ‘I,’ this sounds tautological; perhaps that is the point. The slogan is plastered across the front of the Rome store; another sign alongside it, also in English, reads ‘You are what you Eataly.’ One cannot help but feel that the wordplay has been taken a step too far.
At the heart of Eataly lies a series of paradoxes. Eataly celebrates agricultural life, but its urban stores feel miles away from a rural idyll. It champions hyper-local produce, while being wedded, not least through its name, to the idea of a national cuisine. Eataly presents itself as the whole nation in microcosm; the best of Italian cuisine, all conveniently collected under one roof – yet even if such a thing as the ‘essence’ of a nation or its cuisine existed, it would be impossible to encapsulate it in miniature. Even a store as big as Eataly only has a finite amount of space.
Eataly’s first store opened in 2007 in a disused vermouth factory in Turin. It was founded by Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti with the mission of gathering ‘high-quality food at sustainable and reasonable prices’, as well as celebrating ‘Italian biodiversity’ and educating its customers about ingredients and food production. It aligned itself with the Slow Food movement, which posits that an American-led ‘fast life’ poses an existential threat to all that is good about gastronomy. The very next year, Eataly’s first overseas store opened in Tokyo, shortly followed by its first New York location. It now owns around a dozen supermarkets in Italy, on top of locations on five of seven continents. Its London store is the company’s forty-third. Like most of its outlets, this site is huge, measuring over 40,000 square feet.
With the IKEA-like convenience of the superstore and an almost unlimited range of options only made possible by a slick international logistics system, Eataly’s promise is that it can help us to revive a lost relationship with the soil, the local produce, and even the crafts and techniques of our ancestors – but that it can do so in a modern, metropolitan way. It therefore represents, in microcosm, a central contradiction of Italian food culture: rural myth cloaking urban reality. It is not the first food business to adopt this approach, but its success both domestically and internationally demonstrates that there is plenty of demand for the vision of Italy that Eataly sells.
The idea of Italian food as regional rather than local is a recent development. It is convenient to group Italy’s many cuisines by administrative region – Tuscan, Calabrian, Ligurian – but it is not always helpful, given there are crucial culinary differences within each of Italy’s regions and, in many instances, affinities that cross the borders between them. It also obscures the fundamental unit of the ‘local’ in Italy, which has historically been the city, not the region. Food from the rural periphery acquires a new character in the urban centre, connected to what the food historian Massimo Montanari calls a ‘network’ of contact zones. A great number of Italian culinary demonyms – think pecorino romano or ragù alla bolognese – name-check the city, rather than the surrounding countryside or the region at large.
It is not entirely surprising that an urban business such as Eataly promotes a rural image, despite its spacious stores being far removed from the traditional Italian market. Pastoral creation myths often mask the metropolitan influences on Italy’s food: like the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who collected hundreds of myths and broke them down to their essential elements, we can analyse some of the more famous origin stories of Italian cuisine. Legend has it – or rather, a version of the legend has it – that zuppa alla pavese was introduced to King Francis I of France when he took refuge in a farmhouse, and that he then made it famous as far away as Paris; that ravioli, enveloped in pasta as we know them today, were invented by a Lombard peasant woman named Libista; and that pasta alla carbonara was devised of necessity by a secret revolutionary brotherhood who were hiding out in the mountains, and was only much later introduced to Rome.
All of these myths take place in the rural Italian periphery and feature inventors with limited means. These are stories of cucina povera, poor cuisine, where a spark of genius produces a thing of beauty out of humble ingredients. Serendipitously, the resulting dish becomes renowned elsewhere, especially in urban centres, and is often celebrated as the backbone of Italian food culture. It does not matter, or rather, it matters only in part, that these stories are often largely or entirely fabricated. Debunking origin myths does little to curb their power. They tell us stories that we want to hear: in this case, they insist that a symbiotic relationship with the land plays an essential part in the creation of an Italian national cuisine.
Italy is a relatively new country by Western European metrics. The revolutionary statesman Massimo d’Azeglio is often said to have proclaimed after unification in 1871 that ‘We have made Italy; now we must make Italians’. If Italy is Eataly, as the store claims, then its mission – to bind Italians together with a recognisable national identity – is as old as the idea of a united Italy.
Eataly is the latest in a series of efforts to redefine cuisine as an important, perhaps the most important, symbol of Italian identity. In the early twentieth century, the state was anxious to ‘civilise’ the diet of its malnourished peasants. Pasta spread to corners of the nation where it had previously been rare. In the experimental work The Futurist Cookbook, first published in 1932 and co-authored with the pro-Fascist nationalist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the artist known as Fillìa imagined a menu that would amount to a ‘synthesis of Italy’, containing ‘all the regional foods’ (of course, it did nothing of the sort). An encyclopaedic impulse can be traced throughout Italy’s recent history, from The Silver Spoon, first published in 1950, which collates recipes from across Italy, right through to the protected designation of origin list, a twenty-first century attempt to safeguard the ‘authenticity’ of the nation’s food.
The dramatic culinary variations within the Italian peninsula have always posed a problem for nationalists. How can citizens feel they truly belong to the nation if they speak, eat, and live differently depending on their geographic location? As far back as the fourteenth century, Dante, in his Divine Comedy, could not resist taking a dig at the bread outside his home city of Florence: all other bread was far too salty. (Even now, traditional Florentine bread remains unseasoned.) This intense territorialism is often paradoxically held up as a defining characteristic of Italian gastronomic culture. Food rivalries – the most compelling evidence that there is, after all, no single, canonical Italian cuisine – become repurposed as the central hallmarks of that very idea.
Despite these rivalries, there are still some rituals that are shared. The political scientist Benedict Anderson argued that one of the things that binds together the ‘imagined community’ of the nation state is the ritual of the morning and evening newspapers. He describes this as a ‘mass ceremony’ which each reader knows is ‘being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion’. Newspaper readership may have declined, but the simultaneous mass ceremony has not. When ordering your first espresso of the day, you can be sure that you are sharing in an experience replicated across Italy, and one which Italians have exported across the globe. At the risk of hyperbole, you can feel as though you are part of something.
As Anderson observed, this idea of togetherness is reinforced by the written word. The 1891 publication of Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, the first Italian-language cookbook aimed at a domestic audience, set the idea of a common Italian food culture in motion. As long as they could read Italian, families nationwide could now sit down to the same meal, cooked from the same book. Artusi’s book suggested Italian names for foods previously described using local dialect and made unfamiliar local dishes into national household favourites. It offered a nineteenth-century solution to what pro-unification patriots perceived as the ‘problem’ of campanilismo – loyalty to one’s immediate surroundings at the expense of an Italian identity.
Until quite recently, the Italian state felt acutely vulnerable to fragmentation. In the 1990s, the Lega Nord’s campaign for northern independence briefly appeared to be gathering momentum, but they have since reinvented themselves as an all-Italian ethnonationalist party, dropping ‘Nord’ (North) from their name and collecting votes across the country. In the twenty-first century, rising nationalism coexists alongside an emphasis on local specificity. One of the tasks of nationalism is to encourage a vision of hyper-regional cultures, perhaps especially food cultures, as examples of the whole country’s excellence. Eataly, which encourages customers in Naples to learn about cheeses from the distant Dolomites, and customers in Turin to become familiar with spicy peperoncini from Calabria, is a twenty-first century continuation of this ongoing project.
A few years ago, the London Review Bookshop asked a panel of food writers, chefs and historians: ‘Does Italian cuisine exist?’ Topics of discussion ranged from invented traditions to the acceptability of ‘breaking rules’, but a consensus was not reached on the question itself. Whether Italian cuisine ‘exists’ is in a sense a limited question, with limiting answers. It is like asking whether the Italian language exists, competing as it does with hundreds of local dialects. Italian cuisine ‘exists’ as something that Italians, diaspora communities and outsiders learn, practice, rebel against and push beyond its codified limits. It is ‘real’, in other words, in the sense that we use it and talk about it.
Italian cuisine can appear, on paper, to be regulated by a rigid and elaborate ‘grammar’ of sorts. Strict rules have been devised to govern the varieties of tomato permitted on a Neapolitan pizza; the appropriate implements for preparing Genoese pesto; the ‘correct’ sauces for a particular pasta shape. Break them too egregiously and you risk being publicly shamed on Italians Mad at Food. To many, it matters little that many of these rules are rarely the product of a settled consensus. Eataly’s international success is understandable when we consider that it offers helpful guidance through this minefield, curating only the most authentic, ‘artisanal’ ingredients and dishes for the discerning enthusiast.
At this very moment, cooks across the country, and throughout the Italian diaspora, are breaking ‘rules’. ’Twas ever thus: as the Rome-based author Rachel Roddy notes, disagreement is a ‘fundamental tenet of home cooking’. In defiance of a certain nationalist narrative, Italians are experimenting with flavours from around the world as they always have – even long before the introduction of the tomato in the sixteenth century.
Almost everybody has something in mind when they hear ‘Italian’ together with ‘food’. Eataly’s association of Italy with ‘slow living’, and with an idealised diet, involves an element of wishful thinking. It is just one of many competing stereotypes that inform our ideas of Italian cuisine. It jostles with the reverence shown to the home cooking of the nonna; with the archetype of the macho restaurant chef who won’t tolerate you playing with his recipe; with the hyphenated dishes of Italian emigrants; and of course, with the tourism-inflected image of a convivial aperitivo on the Med. Despite varying degrees of ‘authenticity’, these are all images conjured by ‘Italian cuisine’, but no single one, nor a combination of them, constitutes its essence.
If anything like an essence of Italian cuisine exists, it is intangible. It is in no one set of products, recipes or techniques – important as these remain as points of departure. Instead, it is in certain dispositions, or ways of being in the world. It lies in productive disagreement: in hand-written notes in the margins of cookbooks; in competitive attitudes within and between families, neighbours and localities; in adaptations, based on necessity, changing tastes, and new ingredients; and in the inevitable backlash, which does not always have the desired effect of killing off new inventions (it might even have the opposite result of admitting them into an expanding canon).
Italy is a place where people talk, and sometimes argue, about food. This attitude is by no means unique to Italy, but it is lived there, and in many Italian communities around the world, with a particular intensity. There are few other generalisations that can be made about Italian food that will not necessitate an exception, a qualifying footnote, or an acknowledgement that, in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
A trip to Eataly illustrates this perfectly. While there is much to enjoy and, indeed, plenty to learn, the intricacies and contradictions of Italy’s many food cultures resist an attempt to be captured under one roof. Italy, in the end, is not Eataly. Not quite.
Subediting and additional edits by Sophie Whitehead.
Italian Identity in the Kitchen by Massimo Montanari. On how food became inseparable from Italian national identity.
‘The Language of Specialty’ by Jonathan Nunn. On the disconnect between how food is described – ‘small batch’, ‘artisanal’, ‘craft’ – and the conditions under which it is produced.
The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley. Contains a very informative and entertaining entry on ‘Myths’.
‘Spaghetti in Situ’ by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan. On the wonderful world of Asian pasta.
How We Fell in Love with Italian Food by Diego Zancani. An engaging history of Italian food’s global expansion.