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Weekending in New York City: food porn from Eataly

When I stepped over the threshold of Eataly on Fifth Avenue in New York City, my fear was confirmed: I was in hell.

The shop was teeming with tourists of all nationalities, snapping photos and chattering in unrecognizable languages, relentlessly charging through the store and knocking each other out of the way to look at pasta and meat and San Marzano tomatoes.

Little Italy is in trouble: New York has a new Italian Disneyland.

The 50,000 squarefoot grocery store was opened by Mario Batali as a mecca for Italian products, and its shelves are stocked with high-quality Italian goods, all imported from the home country. Slow Foods is also involved, partnering because the organization likes to expose people to the importance of eating well. (This is slightly confusing, since one of Slow Foods's primary tenets is ecological sustainability -- which seems a little questionable when you're importing everything you sell from thousands of miles away.)

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Batali was actually there the same day I was, clad in a leather vest and leaning jauntily against a counter while a camera crew captured his beaming red face. At least, I think it was Batali. He was wearing so much pancake makeup it could have very well have been a wax representation -- which, given the surroundings, would not have been out of context.

The products themselves, though, were almost pornographically beautiful: quality meats and seafood and sauces, proffered by friendly teams behind counters. And the eat-in options were pretty stellar, too. So despite my borderline agoraphobia, I found I actually enjoyed the place. It just might be about ten years before I can muster the energy to return.

Now for the food porn. Because of a 45-minute wait for a lunchtime table, my dining companions and I opted to stand at a bar and share a bottle of crisp white Falanghina wine while taking down a board of charcuterie. Imported prosciuttos were supplemented by housemade mortadella, and the cheeses represented regions all over the boot. The wine took the edge off, and the physical reminder that Batali knows how to put together a cured meat board made me excited for what was to come. Nostalgic for meals past at Esca, Batali's seafood place in Midtown, I also sampled the crudo, prime cuts of raw fish plated with olive oil and other accoutrements. The standout was the abalone, on the left, rich and fatty and smooth as velvet, salt added by the tiny slices of olive. Reasoning that if you're Mario Batali and you're intent on doing pizza in New York City, you're probably going to do it well, I also went for that. Although I wasn't disappointed with my choice, I didn't find it particularly memorable, either. The crust was crisp and airy, the mozzarella was creamy and clearly choice, and the pepperoni was spicy -- but as a whole, the pie fell short.

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