Ecco perché Eataly non mi piace


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.

¡Coño, mira lo que comen los británicos!

Often, in my role as imparter of the English language to the overprivileged wastlings of the wealthier non-English speaking nations of the world, I am called upon to don the mantle of George Orwell and to defend British food. I usually draw the attention of my students to the fact that, although British food is Not Up To Much, there is in the UK a huge variety of international food on offer due to our cosmopolitan multiculinary heritage.

More recently, however, and especially given that I now have to live here myself, I have decided that we are in fact simply schizophrenic when it comes to food. For all that TV chefs have been kind enough to share with us the benefits of their hard-earned wisdom, the end result is a nation of people wandering round oversized, catastrophically overpowerful and overpriced supermarkets feeling very confused and depressed about the prospect of what they are going to have for tea.

Understandably, a lot of people stick with a) what they can afford and b) what will fill them up as tastily as possible without giving them time to think about the nutritional consequences. This is of course all based on the widely accepted but basically erroneous understanding that the only people in the country who can ‘cook’ are the TV chefs and Nigel fucking Slater and his über-middle-class chums.

On a very recent trip to my local Walmart subsiduary to pick up some very low-fat turkey rashers for a friend, stuck as I was in the queue behind some large, gingerish people, I took the trouble to inspect the contents of their somewhat overladen shopping trolley. It contained:

6 boxes of Asda’s own brand ready meal Chicken Kievs
A bag containing 6 bags of six different flavour crisps, making a total of 32 packets of crisps
Four tins of Asda’s own brand Baked Beans
A breakfast cereal which appeared to be called ‘Breakfast Boredom?’
Some more crisps
Several bags of Extra Special Chunky frozen chips
Four frozen Asda’s own brand Lasagnes
A £6 DVD copy of the film ‘Dude, Where’s my car’?
A large number of frozen pizzas
Four frozen ‘Indian style’ nan-breads
A multipack of ‘German-style’ twiglets
A two litre bottle of Tizer
A six-pack of Smirnoff Ice
Another six-pack of Smirnoff Ice
A third six-pack of Smirnoff Ice, which seemed to be black in colour for some reason
A six-pack of Bacardi Breezers
A second six-pack of Bacardi Breezers (to be fair, they may have been planning some sort of celebration)
An apple (I am not making this up. Oh, okay, there wasn’t an apple).

The sum total of this high-fat bounty came to £47.13. I wanted to try and get hold of the receipt but at this point I was too busy trying to get the bleedin’ plastic bag open and getting slightly annoyed by the impatience of the woman behind me (contents of trolley: Sixteen rolls of kitchen, erm, roll and four two-litre bottles of Asda’s own brand Still Water for fuck’s sake). I did pass them on my way out of the shop. Fatty Bum-fluff Football shirt Boy was perusing the receipt avidly. I think perhaps he was planning to eat it. I did briefly consider grabbing it out of his hands and making a run for it, thereby gaining a more detailed and specific record of their anti-nutritional shopping expedition which would allow more scientific analysis, but I was scared that they might catch me and put me on the front page of the Daily Mail along with the words ‘Student Type Caught Red-Handed in Terror Plot to Mock the Lower Orders!’. Or, you know, something.

It might make an interesting art project to go round Asda buying the most unhealthy week’s shopping available, and seeing if you could make it match up to exactly £47.13. I suspect that the contents of such a trolley would be exactly the same as those I’ve listed above. Mind you, I dread to think what toll those low-fat turkey rashers will enact on us all one day…