I first came across Eataly in Bologna. I had been dubious even then – a city full of artisinal produce, ancient delis and one of the pioneering regions for Slow Food was spread before me, and yet everyone who had anything to do with food, wine or the city itself, had told me to go to a 4-story new(ish) department store style eatery. I’d expected it to be soulless, mainstream, a glass and metal box full of assembly-line pizza and pasta, and boring old modernity. It wasn’t of course.
Eataly in Bologna really is something, and what I didn’t realise back then, is that it’s just one (and not even the first) in a line of Italian megadelis of the same name. The crowd started in Turin under the care of Oscar Farinetti, long time friend of Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food. This friendship was one of the catalysts that has produced what may well prove to be the most successful food-hall come restaurants in the world. The ideal behind Eataly was to bring good quality Italian food to the market in a big, affordable and honest way. Adhering to old values, supporting local farmers and yet presenting it in a suitably urban manner.
The Bologna store, like many of the Eataly outlets, is housed in an historic shell. “Ambasciatori” or “Ambassadors” it is called, and has at times been a cinema and a church. It’s always been in the old market district of Bologna, and is surrounded by road stalls, wine bars and the atmospheric delis as I mentioned earlier. The design is sleek yet rusty-edged, and comingles with the traditional-farmer-meets-cityboy company mission. Inside is a homage to booze, literature and pork. Bologna has three nicknames – “La Dotta” (the learned), “La Grassa” (the fat) and “La Rossa” (the red), and funnily enough, if you spend enough time at Eataly and you will walk out well-read, fat on sausage, and ruddied with the flush of arthouse beers and wines.
The Dubai emmigration has been performed as a collaberation between Eataly Italia and Lebanon-based AZADEA Group, a mainly retail holding company that also controls a couple of dining franchises, including Paul and the Butcher Shop and Grill. It’s not tiny, with 2,000-square-meters and around 2,000 products (however the Rome venue is 15000-square-meters, and the venues in the states hover around 4000 and higher.) My greatest question before entering the venue, however was “Can they do it without the pork?”
The answer is “yes”… and “no”.
Let’s firstly have a look at what Eataly Dubai can’t do:
- Sell pork – they could apply for a pork license, but this would have alienated half their customer base, reduced their liklihood of being housed in Dubai’s flagship mall, forced them to have separate storage and kitchens, and increased costs exponentially. Bit of a downer, but let’s face it – sensible avoidance.
- Sell booze – Alcohol is also no-no for Muslims, but taints with less of the dirty stick than pork does. Let’s reduce the alienation to about 10%. It would however have required a change in venue (moving to a licenced hotel or club district), and therefore may have put a serious dent in retail sales, coupled with higher costs (although rent at the Dubai Mall can’t be cheap). Unfortunate, but understandable.
- Sell Slow Food appropriately – It’s not Italy here. Some day, one of our amazing engineers may figure out how to pick up the UAE and move it closer to the Mediterranean, but for the moment, we’re all firmly and happily in the Gulf. They can sell some cans and jars with the pretty Slow Food snail on the label, but the concept is perverted with all the food miles and Eataly’s need to adhere to Italian values in a different culture and geographic area.
So what can they do to make up for the gap?:
- Pasta – There’s an excellent (albeit brief) offer here. Gorgeous fresh pasta in about 10 or so different forms, for consumption on the premises, or take-away.
- Pizza – simple, but good. Possibly a little overpriced, but done well, and quickly. Piadina is also tasty (although not really rocket science). Foccaccia upon entry looks amazing – return visit required methinks.
- Bread – like the Italian Eatalys, slices of bucolic bread in sealed paper bags arrive at the table with the menus. In Italy, this is not complimentary (marked on the bill as “contorni”), and cleverly allows unopened packages to be re-used. Here, it’s free, so dig in.
- Cheese – most of the cheese is imported (and very decent, but the way), but you will find some house-made scamorza on offer, which dangles prettily in bauble-form like hundreds of little presents from the ceiling.
- Gelato – soft-serve gelato streams out of classic taps in 8-10 traditional flavours. It’s superb. Combines childish Mr Whippy memories with adult flavour. And if you are feeling indecisive or greedy, they let you sample the flavours before you decide on one.
- Drinks – Ok, so they’re not cult garage beers and wines from the nearby tuscan fields, but there is a great offer. The mocktail list is clever and suits broad tastes, there’s San Pellegrino sodas on offer (although unfortunately not Chinotto, which is my “drink-when-I’m-not-having-a-drink”), and stacks of fruits and veggies ripe for juicing. The coffee’s not bad either (although not really in the running for the best in Dubai yet). Water is Italian.
- Pasticceria – you’ll find this just before you exit, and so even if you think you can get away without dessert, there is a last-ditch effort to swing you. It will work. There’s some seriously amazing looking desserts in the case, including cannoli, tiramisu, biscotti, Cioccolatini, Crostata, and Zabaglione amongst other incredible things.
And what is still working it’s way towards excellence?
- Rosticceria – I’m sorry, but for me, it’s just not Italian without porchetta. They’re trying though, with some chicken wrapped in veal bacon, and some decent roast beef, but I think this area needs a little more attention and innovation. The Italian stores smell like you’re walking past a rotisserie food cart at the market – I’d like that kind of pungency here too.
- Books – The non-food section is small – mainly expensive homewares and a small range of books. It does not inspire the cook in one as Eataly Bologna does. I hung around that store for hours reading books in a language I couldn’t understand, and that in itself speaks volumes.
- Fresh Produce – Tricky, I know… Keep it local, and it’s fresh and supporting Slow Food values, but it’s not Italian. Keep it Italian, and you have food miles and freshness issues. I’m not sure how to solve the problem, but it would be nice if this were more of a one-stop-shop where you could buy everything you needed for a gourmet dinner, not just the bits in jars and packets. The Istanbul Eataly apparently has a daily market – I’d like to see this done in Dubai too.
And what totally misses the mark?
- Mean and green – The olive tree in the centre. It’s been alive for more years than me (one person told me 50, the other 200), and is now being shown total disrespect to what will be the end of it’s life, in the middle of a flourescent-lit, air-conditioned mall with no natural light. I’d love to see an Andrea Roggi olive tree in there instead (but maybe without the nude emerging from the trunk considering where we are).
- Range – Much of what you can buy from the separate departments and the shelves is not available on the menu. Considering the mission statement is “We cook what we sell and we sell what we cook”, I believe this should be expanded.
So is it worth it? Yes, definitely for a look. Unfortunately the concept is a little diluted, with the lack of local produce (which can’t be Italian anyway), and no bridge connecting tradition and urban living like the other venues. They’ll have to work a little harder for return visits, but it’s early days, so let’s hope all goes well.
Pros: good pasta and pizza, bread, cheese, desserts and drinks. OK kids menu, interesting concept, some excellent products available.
Cons: No pork or wine, expensive gourmet items, no shine on the service, sad olive tree.
Price: approx 100-180 AED per head including drinks.
Ph. +971 4 3308899
Address: Lower Ground, Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai
Eataly Bologna (in Italian)
A look at Eataly Turin on this post on FX Cuisine
*A guide to ratings: These take into account the price, quality, service and the facilities, and in effect are a value rating. A venue with mains at 30AED has just as much chance of getting a 10/10 as a fine dining establishment.
- 0-2/10 = exceptionally overpriced or tremendously awful. Avoid at all costs.
- 3-5/10 = overpriced in respect to quality. Lacklustre. Don’t eat there unless there are no other options.
- 6-7/10 = reasonable value. Check other options in the area just in case, but not a bad choice over-all.
- 8-9/10= worth seeking out. Tremendous food and ambience. One of if not the best restaurant in the area.
- 10/10 = As good as it gets. Stop what you’re doing, book a table now.