Wouldn’t it be great if someone could combine the range and quality of Italian food with the style and convenience of Ikea? No, it would be shit. How can I be so sure? Well, I’ve been to such a place, and I also live surrounded by images of it. Eataly is marketed rather aggressively here in Rome – entire metro stations are smothered with adverts for the place, leaflets litter the streets, and while it may be true that all roads eventually lead to Rome, in the città eterna itself around a third of the road signs direct you to Eataly Ostiense.
The founder of the company is a friend of perma-gurning Flash Harry past-but-not-future Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Oscar Farinetti is an odd character, who stresses the importance of local food culture but has also defended Coca Cola and McDonalds. His company only started in 2007 but already has 28 stores in six countries, 18 of which are in Italy. The flagship Ostiense branch occupies a huge building (a former air terminal) 170,000 square feet in size. It is an upscale food court mixed with Whole Foods or Waitrose. Farinetti was inspired by the thought that “unfortunately the world of small food shops, those small places dedicated to quality food, like Americans imagine, died many years ago”, a dubious statement but one that serves a self-serving and self-fulfilling prognosis – there would be more independent food outlets in Rome were it not for Farinetti’s mission to replicate and supercede them. Italy doesn’t have many chains but Eataly is starting to be as dominant as Starbucks is elsewhere.
The Eataly brand is selling lifestyle just as much as convenience. What it trades in first and foremost is the experience of being the kind of person who shops there. Hence the tone of its advertising is aspirational and (as befits any place associated with Renzi) smug. The atmosphere is anodyne, sterile, antiseptic, the kind of non-place Frederic Jameson characterised as ‘useless as a conduit of psychic energy’, an example of the nicely-packaged and air conditioned but ultimately boring future that J.G.Ballard predicted. Paradoxically, given that it has replaced a large chunk of the centre of Rome, it’s not easy to get to; as the New York Times wrote, it’s not designed for people arriving on foot. I’ve yet to get there from Piramide metro station without getting lost at least twice. Parking is a central selling point, meaning for those who live nearby, even more unsustainable levels of traffic. Rome is one of the world’s greatest walking cities, but this is a big box mall is just as remote from the pavements and piazze of Testaccio as a mall in the LA suburbs. And given the sheer quantity of produce on offer (no reflection of the range) it is not at all clear what is quality and what not.
Rome has a dearth of food markets. The one near us is friendly but small, and the one in Testaccio, near Eataly, is pleasant and varied but under-occupied. There is a larger market near Termini station (Mercato Esquilino) which is bursting with immigrant energy and variety, but longer-standing homegrown equivalents are scarce. As it happens, the first Eataly was in Torino, also home to one of the most vibrant markets I’ve ever been to, whose atmosphere was earthy, foul-mouthed, and sometimes abrasive, the vendors not there to impress you or to sell you an image of yourself. Such a place exists because it exists, not because some tycoon with political connections decided to remake the city according to their megalomaniac vision.
The experience reminds me of the surprise I felt in 2001 when it turned out that a Portuguese student’s ‘favourite restaurant’ turned out to be in a shopping centre. Nowadays, with Giraffe and Carluccio’s and Zizzi’s and Wahaca and Las Iguanas and Viva Brasil and The Real Greek and Wagamamma and Yo! Sushi, it seems that many cities are, to recall Karl Marx, in chains (with London the most obvious example) . It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between local and corporate, with many global cafés imitating the stylings of independent outlets. It took us a few months of living in the Condesa area of Mexico City to realise that many of the cafés and resturants were replicants of places in Polanco, a similarly safe-but-kinda-dull part of town. It was disappointing to see that the recently-revamped Cardiff Bay only offers the same eight or nine international chains one sees everywhere from Bangkok to Bangalore.
Eataly thus exists on the Uber GPS map of Rome, disembedded from the city itself. It depresses me that visitors go out of their way to come here. Rome may be messy, disorganised, inconvenient and occasionally overpriced, but it is Rome, not some branded and airbrushed simulacrum of itself. Its fascination partly lies in its being covered in remains of fallen empires; this one, sadly, is in the ascendant.