Eataly can be a hard place for the hungry.
For starters, chaos rules the moment you set foot in the door of this cavernous Whole Foods-meets-tony-food-court Italian emporium in New York City that opened at the end of summer. Believe me, you’ll need all the strength you can muster to bulldoze your way past the bodies before you can get at any food.
And while you’re pressed up, body against body, there are the displays of cheeses, desserts, milk and coffee you’ll be breezing past. You’ll want to stop, of course — but the mosh pit all around owns you. All you can do is cast longing glances, hoping for some private time with that fetching taleggio later in the evening perhaps, as the crowd carries you helplessly along.
Our destination on this particularly mobbed Saturday evening is Il Pesce, the fish restaurant within this 50,000 square foot-place that partner Mario Batali has famously billed as a “temple,” where “food is more sacred than commerce.”
Amid the sections where you can buy pasta, bread, cookbooks or stand around tall tables in a “tasting piazza” and nibble on cured meats, there are a few eateries devoted to specific categories — vegetables, pasta, fish, meat. Our dining companion for the evening, the insatiable Gael Greene, has already eaten her way through a few of those places. “I was curious to try the fish restaurant …” she says.
So, Il Pesce it is …
The system, we find out, is that there is a line — a long one. This line is for the fish and the vegetarian place — when you get to the front of the line, they figure out where you want to go.
It’s a casual setup — you can sit at a counter and watch your food getting prepped …
… or you can opt for a table in a space that feels a little like a trade-show cafeteria.
It is early in this establishment’s life, so the people who run it are out and about, keeping an eye on their newborn, making sure things run smoothly. In one corner, Lidia Bastianich, who has partnered with Batali and her son Joe to create Eataly, is sitting at the Il Pesce bar, chatting with a friend.
We’ve barely warmed our seats when David Pasternak of the beloved seafood trattoria Esca surfaces to say “Hello.” Pasternak, who is overseeing Il Pesce’s menu, is working hard that night, running around, poking at fish, watching over his army of chefs in the narrow kitchen behind the counter.
Pasternak disappears and then all of a sudden, he’s by our sides again, hoisting up a fish. “Blue fish,” he explains.
I guess it’s what we’ll be eating.
We place our orders and begin what seems to be an interminable wait — all around us, there is the echo of people laughing, loudly talking, as if in a convention hall.
There is bread to be sampled — wrapped in little waxy paper bags. It’s not very good — I wonder whether this was made at the impressive-looking bakery just around the corner from our table. But with no food arriving, we eat it anyway.
Littleneck clams are calling to us — on the menu, they’re $15 for half a dozen.
Steven, Gael’s partner, decides to take a stroll as we wait — discovering a beautiful display of shellfish at the fish market that’s just a few steps from our table. The price of the littlenecks here? Just 50 cents each.
“What a difference ten feet makes,” Mike says after noting the price tag on the eight clams that Steven brings back from his stroll. Surreptitiously, we rip open the plastic and start attacking our contraband clams.
The disappointing bread is forgotten after the first clam I have — these are incredibly fresh, succulent and a lovely start to the meal.
After quite a bit more waiting, courses arrive.
Pesce azzurro and peperonata ($12), marinated anchovies and sardines with sweet peppers, is briny and tangy.
The broth of the fish soup with spicy tomato crostini ($14) has a nice kick to it but the fish is a little tough. (Although, this could well be attributed to the fact that we spent so long taking pictures of the appetizers that the fish got overcooked in the hot broth.)
What blows our minds, however, is the pesce crudo ($19), a trio of raw fish tastings. Like the clams, this is all incredibly fresh — the fish doesn’t really need any dressing up. On their own, the pieces are sweet, firm, beautiful on the tongue. But the accoutrements — they’re not bad either.
The mackerel with olive dribblings and the black sea bass with crunchy beans are delicious. But it’s the sockeye salmon topped with Hawaiian sea salt that has us speechless. Briefly, we consider ordering another round.
It is good that we have this divine moment because the entrees are a little spotty.
Mike’s roasted blue fish ($24) is massive but, he (rightly) declares, has a texture that’s “a little spongy.”
Even so, we like it better than the tiny pompano ($24) that’s just a little too done.
The fritto misto ($21), assorted fried fish Ligurian-style, draws mixed reactions — while the dish has us reminiscing about bygone trips to Venice, the batter feels a little dense.
But there is one star among the entrees, a grilled salmon topped with capers and shards of lemon peel ($21).
Now this, we can’t get enough of. The combination of fresh salmon with tart lemon peel and capers is truly nicely done.
Paired with the trio of sides we ordered (at $5 each), the meal is complete. Of the sides, the super-fresh corn with cherry tomatoes and the nicely crisp fingerling potatoes win us over but the summer squash is just so-so.
Since everything is so compartmentalized so far at Eataly, we can’t order pasta — not even seafood pasta — or dessert at Il Pesce.
So once our entrees vanish, there’s nothing to do but simply pay and leave. It seems an unceremonious and abrupt end to a boisterous dinner. But get up and leave we do.
Dinner may have been spotty, but one final comforting thought propels us. On the way out, perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll pass that handsome-looking dessert section …
Eataly, 200 Fifth Avenue; 212.229.2560.