I recognize that I am probably the last so-called foodie in the Metropolitan area to haul myself over to Eataly. I surely must be the last Italian-American round these parts to do so.
Last week I made the pilgrimage to that Disneyland of imported Italian foods on 23rd Street & 5th Avenue, the partnership of Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, and Joe Bastianich. I expected to be overwhelmed by its size (a whopping 50,000 sf – and me who gets catatonic at Home Depot!), by flocks of tourists, and by prices in the stratosphere. None of these materialized. Well, I wish the grocery prices had been lower, but I was more than happy to shell out what I did for a memorable lunch at La Pizza & La Pasta, one of Eataly’s 7 eateries.
I ordered a dish I consider a true test: cacio e pepe spaghettone ($14). This simple dish of cheese and black pepper was perfect, plentiful, and served just as the menu promised: glistening sauce clinging to strands of fat pasta cooked “very al dente, like in Italia.”
The pizza/pasta restaurant comprises two counters and a table area. I arrived shortly after 1 pm on a Tuesday and was told there would be a ten-minute wait for a spot at the counter. Barely 60 seconds later, I was seated. Below is the view from my perch.
Service was prompt and efficient from beginning to end, without making me feel rushed. Water, slices of Italian bread (just OK), and superbly green, peppery olive oil arrived almost immediately, along with cutlery wrapped in a thick cloth napkin. When I asked my server to recommend a glass of wine, he quite correctly steered me to the Mirafiore Barbera d’Alba Superiore 2010. At $14 it wasn’t the cheapest alternative, but it was a perfect match and a good size pour.
After lunch I roamed aisle after aisle of everything from dried and fresh pasta to fresh produce and kitchenware. And not just Italian: there were, for example, premium Satsuma oranges.
Then I stopped for espresso ($2.50, including a complimentary gingerbread biscuit) at one of two stand-up coffee cafes, Vergnano (the other is Lavazza). My only disappointment came from the bakery counter: a cold, tasteless baba au rhum.
I have a reputation among my friends for restraining myself from overbuying at markets and Eataly was no exception. Here’s my loot of staples, which came to a grand total of $19.63: a pound of Garafalo pasta, sheets of crisp Sardinian flatbread (as thin as the music sheets it’s named after), a jar of arugula pesto, and a bag of light-as-air “lady kisses” chocolate and hazelnut cookies.
Croatian Wine Surprises
When I received an invitation from Vina Croatia to attend their tasting seminar in New York on the wines of their homeland, I jumped at the chance – primarily because my knowledge of Croatian wines (like Croatian geography) was approximately nil. No longer – not after an entertaining and enlightening hour led by wine writers Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, known as “The World Wine Guys.”
I could not be more pleased to have made their acquaintance (both the guys and the wines). The whites in particular impressed, including those made with familiar grapes like Riesling and Gewürztraminer and those made with grapes indigenous to the area, such as Grasevina and Malvasia Istriana.
That last name gives a hint to the upcoming wine-growing regions of present-day Croatia, which is carved out of what had been Yugoslavia. The main four are Istria, Dalmatia, Slavonia (not to be confused with Slovenia), and the Croatian Uplands.
Guess who has a winery in Croatia? Mike Grgich of California’s Grgich Hills. He came to the US in the 1950s and in 1996, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, he went back and established a winery in his native land. Wines like his (red) Grgich Plavac Mali can be sampled in his California tasting room.
I practically swooned over the one ice wine that was included in the tasting, with its gorgeous light caramel color, floral nose, velvety mouth-feel, and notes of apricot. I’d provide the name but there’s little point because as of now, few of these wines are carried in NJ wine stores. (One that does seem to carry a sizeable collection, although not of the particular wines I sampled, is Madison Wine Cellar.) Meantime, my advice is to be on the lookout for Croatian wines, which are appearing more and more on restaurant lists. When you find one you like, ask your local wine shop to stock it for you. And just so you’re ready to hit the ground running, here are some fascinating facts I gleaned about Croatian wine:
- Traces of wine making in Croatia date back to 2200 BC.
- The first laws ever written concerning wine quality and standards were written in Croatia. (Take that, France!)
- Croatia has more than 800 wineries, 64 indigenous wine grape varieties, and 66 appellations. All this with a population half the size of Manhattan.
Some of the Croatian winemakers were on hand for the seminar. My favorite anecdote was from one who related how the last few generations of his family have been citizens of four different countries: Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Croatia. And that was without ever moving out of their house.