Eataly, the Strip’s newest import, signals another level in the evolution of the high-concept food market
Sometimes an idea seems outlandish until you see it become a phenomenon. Over a decade ago, there was this balding guy in a turtleneck boasting that his company had reinvented the smartphone. This little black-and-silver bar of soap cost $500, cracked with nothing more than a dirty look, and had no handy-dandy stylus or even a physical keyboard. The iPhone might have seemed weird then, but I bet that not many of you are texting on a Blackberry.
Am I working up to say that Eataly is the iPhone of Strip dining — amusingly strange but possibly revolutionary? Not necessarily, but I’m not ruling it out. Eataly is the name for these ultra-Italian collections of food and drink and product that have been springing up in any city with enough of the cringingly wealthy that they have their own neighborhood fiefdoms in which to take root. The list of countries hosting Eatalys look like the rankings for global Lamborghini sales. Thankfully, despite this, the Eataly famiglia understands that the Las Vegas Strip is the destination for the world, so the prices are a bit more geared for Vegas meat-and-potatoes middle-market tourists.
Emphasis on tourists. Eataly is a beautiful Disneyland of meat and cheese and bread. Every tile and sign and fixture just drips Italian. This is as close as it gets to having a food tour of Italy in your own city. Not only is this all there to eat, it’s there to take home. Ten types of prosciutto, massive wheels of Grana Padano, fresh pasta and fish, and oh my god it makes Whole Foods look like Piggly Wiggly.
As a Vegas native, I know how we locals imagine the prospect of visiting the Strip as though it’s a trip to the far side of the moon. I have one rejoinder: Get your freakin’ moon boots on, Armstrong. Eataly is worth every clogged intersection and horn honk. Yeah, I know — Strip traffic, paid parking, crowds, kinda expensive, the 15-minute walk, the possible wait for a table. But if you want to feast like a true gourmand, you’ll have the bounty of a thousand years of Italian cuisine laid out in front of you to stuff yourself stupid with. There’s a feeling of peace that no other cuisine provides, a sense of peace that comes from being full of six types of meat, nine types of aged cheeses, armfuls of bread, and multiple sloshing glasses of wine.
Here’s the concept. Three bars: Gran Caffe Milano with small bites, espresso, wine, amaro, that kind of thing. L’aperitivo is a cocktail spot with a good selection of grappa and spritzes. L’Enoteca is easy to miss, but there’s a dizzying wine selection here, and craft cocktails are also in the plan. Two restaurants: Manzo is an ode to meat, and the spiritual successor to the dearly missed Carnevino. Manzo boasts a rumbling of volcanic culinary talents, and I’ll definitely be returning to see if this is the Vesuvius it promises to be. The other restaurant is La Pizza e La Pasta. It’s far from as basic as the name implies, boasting dishes such as the obscure “vesuvio” cone-shaped pasta in a spicy Calabrian pepper pork ragu, squid ink tagliatelle with seafood, and pizza puttanesca. There’s a handful of worthwhile take-away spots that serve fine coffee, pastries, chocolate, nutella bars, gelato. Good to satisfy a specific craving, but what else? Here’s the big draw: The Market. Each stall specializes in a specific area of Italian cuisine. Roasted meats, fried street foods, fish, pasta, cured meats, cheeses, Roman-style pizza, and an 11-seat theater for chef demonstrations. This is where you can go around, pick out a meat here, a cheese there, a pasta or what have you, and they’ll take it from the display case to the kitchen, and then to your waiting face at a cafe table or standing bar. It feels kind of awkward and unfamiliar at first — like, I don’t know, a phone without buttons? — but it quickly makes sense.
And it’s all amazing. Here’s the entire list of gripes I had with the quality of the food: They used lactic acid curds to make the fresh hand-pulled mozzarella instead of fermented curds. I am almost definitely alone in that gripe, and it’s not even that a huge difference unless you’re tasting the two side by side.
What if this is the future? What if food courts were restaurants, or restaurants were food courts? And what if Grand Central Market in L.A. was the second tone of this same chord? Isn’t American exceptionalism all about picking the absolute pinnacle of a myriad of specialties, and shoving them all in your face at once? I submit that this satisfies the same impulse that the buffet satisfied in postwar Vegas. The isolated becomes communal, the few choices become the plethora, the global becomes the Italian, which in turn, of course — like all things valuable — becomes the American. Heaven help us for whatever happens after that, but for now, for Eataly, it’s one hell of a trip.