Italy, Fast & Slow: Behind the Unlikely Rise of Eataly

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Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty Images

Small-batch specialty hams are among the 3,000 products on the shelves at Eataly

Three days a week, a retired agricultural officer named Teodoro Vadalà sets to work in the back of what was once a small roadside shop about an hour and a half south of Rome, making a cheese that has twice come close to extinction. Using a stirring stick and a large aluminum vat, he curdles sheep's milk into small wheels of cheese, which he shapes by hand and sets on a table to dry. Il Conciato di San Vittore, as the cheese is called, represents the deepest roots of Italian culinary production — small scale, artisanal, steeped in history. Yet the chances for its survival would be slim if not for a recent partnership with an Italian business operating on a vastly different scale: the newly opened Eataly supermarket in central Rome.

With four floors of aisles and restaurants connected by moving walkways and glass elevators, the location is the gourmet chain's newest and biggest, a flagship in the Italian capital to complement its branches in New York City, Tokyo, Torino and Milan. Mario Batali, a partner in the booming New York outpost, has turned Eataly into a hit by selling Americans on the appeal of traditional Italian culture. Eataly, in fact, is much more than that. With its big-box decor, globe-spanning ambitions and innovative marketing, it represents an opportunity for Italians to reclaim a culinary heritage that's slipping away. On the broad spectrum of food culture, Eataly and Il Conciato di San Vittore are a world apart, yet each would be lost without the other.

Until a couple of generations ago, producers like Vadalà were the rule. Italy was still largely an agricultural country, and many people made their own cheeses, hams, jams and sauces. Those who didn't bought them from small vendors in their local market. But industrialization and urbanization have withered those links to the land. Women have left the kitchen for the workplace. Morning markets have given way to grocery stores. Small-scale artisans have succumbed to national producers' economies of scale. In 1996 roughly 40% of Italy's food was sold by small, traditional retailers. A decade later, that percentage had been cut in half. "Nobody wanted to go the market anymore, where it smelled and you were pressed inside with others," says Rachel Black, author of Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market. "Supermarkets are controlled, clean. They were associated with modernity."

So rapid was Italy's transformation that it sparked a countermovement. The catalyst was the opening of the country's first McDonald's, in 1986, near the Spanish Steps in downtown Rome. Carlo Petrini, a journalist, organized a protest against the chain, launching what eventually became the slow-food movement, a global effort to preserve traditional culinary heritage. It has been a losing battle. The economics of the food industry have been overwhelming. Artisanal products have become specialty items, and McDonald's now displays the Golden Arches over 411 locations in Italy.

Against this backdrop, Eataly opened its first location in 2007 in a converted vermouth factory on the outskirts of Torino. The store's founder, Oscar Farinetti, had spent 25 years expanding a home-electronics business into a national empire. His experience in big-box retail shows. Eataly's supermarkets have the scale and polish of an Ikea, with broad aisles guiding customers past displays of carefully stacked goods. One sign advertises a wine tasting for $20. Nearby, a display stand offers shoulder bags stamped with the slogan EATALY IS ITALY. Asked about the supermarket's big-box feel, Farinetti's son, Nicola, who manages the Rome store, is unapologetic. "If you say the word Ikea, I see only positive aspects," he says. "Ikea is an amazing place. [Founder Ingvar Kamprad] reinvented the furniture business."

While Eataly stores are slick and seem mass-produced, the 3,000 products sold there are not. That's what makes the chain different from most major food retailers. Instead of relying on established distribution channels, Oscar Farinetti turned to his childhood friend Petrini and hired Slow Food Italy as a consultant to help him find the country's best small producers. "Eataly represents the closing of the circle," says Black. "It's the nostalgic memory of the market but still in the controlled environment of a supermarket."

In other words, Eataly has brought fast food to slow food, injecting standardization and mass marketing into the artisanal-food industry. For its customers, Eataly provides the convenience of vetting and selecting. For small producers, it brings their products to consumers they could otherwise never reach. "It's like a big display case," says Sebastiano Sardo, a consultant with Slow Food who helps Eataly choose suppliers when it enters a new market.

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