In Rome, a New Branch of Eataly –

FOR more than two decades, the glass-domed Air Terminal languished beside the rail lines of Rome’s Stazione Ostiense in a state of abandonment. Squatters occupied its hollow vertical spaces, and the surrounding area could only be described as seedy. Then, two years ago, the giant high-end supermarket chain Eataly began transforming the structure into its 15th outpost, its largest outlet yet. The complex opened in June, bringing 170,000 square feet of artisanal Italian food to, well, Rome.

This particular Eataly contains considerable retail space, 18 casual restaurants and cafes, a coffee roaster, a brewery and even its own travel agency, all within a four-story space that resembles an upscale food court at an American mall. In a city known for family-run delis and local produce markets, it stands out. Its conspicuous presence prompts a question: Why would you open an Eataly here?

For Nicola Farinetti, the store’s manager and son of the chain’s founder, the answer is simple: “Unfortunately the world of small food shops, those small places dedicated to quality food, like Americans imagine, died many years ago,” he said.

That may be an overstatement. High-end food purveyors are hardly facing extinction, but supermarkets have taken hold in Rome, no doubt drawing some customers from local markets to mass-produced fare. Eataly hopes to combine the best of both worlds. The brand was founded by Oscar Farinetti, a pioneer in big-box appliance shopping in Italy. The Farinettis now count stores on three continents, including one in New York opened in 2010 in partnership with the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group.

Visiting the Eataly in Rome takes some commitment. Its famous building is nonetheless difficult to reach. On several trips this month, I braved the long and somewhat dodgy subterranean trek from the Piramide Metro station to Eataly, navigating the broken moving sidewalks that pave the way despite the lack of signs directing me to the store. Local residents can drive to the shopping center, where there are 600 parking spaces, and the non-budget-conscious can always take a taxi.

Those visitors who do make it to Eataly enter from the parking lot into a line of cash registers, beyond which a bank, a cellphone shop and an information desk are reminiscent of shopping malls. Escalators deliver visitors to various dining and drinking spaces, the most exciting of which is the Birreria, where Baladin, Birra del Borgo, and DogFish Head are collaborating to brew beers on site. A fine selection of quality craft brews is sold, in addition to a number of industrial brands, a rule that applies to the store’s offerings at large.

Throughout Eataly, shoppers are confronted with a combination of artisanal and industrial products of wildly inconsistent quality. It’s up to the consumer to decipher what’s what. Excellent cheeses and cured meats are served in the Salumeria, while the fishmonger displays sad, foggy-eyed specimens. The “Friggitoria” (a fried-food shop) serves rather disappointing fried fish and meatballs at a bar surrounding an open kitchen on the second floor, while ’ino sells delectable, if pricey, sandwiches from a ground-floor counter.

The lack of consistency is perhaps mitigated by the sheer convenience of it all. Thousands of nicely packaged products are artfully displayed in a large, air-conditioned space, an American paradigm that is alive and well here. Does Rome need an Eataly? Perhaps not, but judging by the crowds I saw, it sure does want one.

Eataly, Via 12 Ottobre, 1492; (39-06) 9027-9201;; open daily 10 a.m. to midnight.

In Rome, a New Branch of Eataly –

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