Eataly — the 50,000 square foot Italian food hall by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Lidia Bastianich — is becoming one of my favorite places in New York. If you haven’t been yet, I always tell people it’s like an Italian version of Mitsuwa (Yaohan for you old-schoolers that can’t accept change), but more cramped. If you’re not familiar with the Japanese marketplace in New Jersey, it’s like Whole Foods combined with a fancy food court. Or better yet, a food court for old people. Eataly isn’t perfect. Layout is problematic; dining areas are haphazardly scattered about, so it’s not unusual to have your table bumped by a cart as the driver rounds the corner to the fresh pasta case. People bumping is also common. On my last visit, I was treated to a show when two couples got into a shouting match over one party getting pushed by the other. But if you can get beyond the crazed environment, a great meal plus dessert can be easily had.
When David and I arrived at Eataly one weekend, the line for the pasta and pizza restaurants (La Pasta and Pizzeria Rossopomodoro, respectively) was ridiculously long, so we opted for Il Pesce, Eataly’s seafood restaurant headed by Esca executive chef Dave Pasternack. When at a restaurant called Il Pesce (fish), it makes sense to order fish, so as soon as we sat down, we ordered one branzino for David and one orata for me.
The Orata alla Piastra ($25) — an orata (gilthead seabream) split, grilled, and simply seasoned — was moist, delicate, and fresh. The orata was served with grilled lemon, but with hardly any fishiness, the fish only needed a squirt, just for taste.
The Branzino al Forno ($24) was a whole branzino (European sea bass) stuffed with parsley, garlic, and lemon, roasted on top of sliced potatoes. Again, the fish was very fresh and cooked perfectly. Branzino, however, is a more flavorful fish than orata, so if you prefer a milder fish, order the orata. After a few bites, David and I switched plates since he liked the orata more. I liked both. In fact, when David was done, I finished his orata after eating all of my branzino.
Save for a few slices of potato with the branzino, the fish entrées don’t come with anything, so we also ordered a few side dishes to share. Roasted yellow and red beets ($5), which although all pink, were sweet with a bit of sourness (vinegar perhaps?) at the end. Sweet local corn with tomatoes ($5) were crisp, but most importantly, well-salted. Salty and sweet makes for one of my favorite combinations.
For dessert, we made our way to the Pasticceria, run by Luca Montersino who specializes in dolci al cucchiaio or spoon desserts.
There were a lot of desserts to choose from, but I went straight for the gorgeous Tiramisu alle Arachidi e Cara ($5.80) which the counterperson described as a tiramisu made with rice sponge cake, caramel, coffee liqueur, and salted peanuts. David was initially turned off by the mention of rice, but after one bite he was smitten, as was I. Each silky smooth custard-like spoonful enveloped in liquid caramel, coffee liqueur, and studded with crunchy salted peanuts was ethereal. Salty and sweet never fails.
David had the Diabella Golosotto ($3.80), a light airy dessert cup of whipped hazelnut white chocolate, milk chocolate, and chocolate sponge cake. In comparison to the tiramisu, this was a bit more generic but still quite good.
Diners who want a more typical dining experience in which they can order their main course followed by dessert and coffee without shuttling from one counter to another can do so at Eataly’s more formal restaurant Manzo, but I enjoyed walking about in the space. Perusing food on display is far more fun than perusing a menu. It makes for a more interactive dining experience, just don’t push me. I push back.