What is more exciting than planning a winter culinary getaway? Toronto’s Eataly offers the type of authentic culinary experience that is sought out not just by locals, but food and drink enthusiasts from around the globe. This is Canada’s first iteration, and given its success it seems likely that Montreal will be a contender for Eataly in the not too distant future.
In January 2007 the Italian visionary and entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti converted an abandoned vermouth factory in Torino into the first Eataly location. He had travelled across the 20 regions that comprise Italy to locate and select a variety of quality regional products which embrace Slow Food’s partner’s qualifications for food that is good, clean, and fair. (Slow Food is the grassroots global organization founded in 1989 to combat the erosion of local food culture, tradition, and encroaching fast-food culture. The initiative has evolved into a global movement that engages millions of people in over 160 countries.)
Toronto’s Eataly, the company’s 40th location, occupies 50,000 square feet and employs more than 300 people. A $100 million redevelopment of Toronto’s Manulife Centre, a prestige address located at Bay and Bloor, added a glass façade to the property to incorporate the new retail space. Inside the Centre, a reconfiguration and a shuffling of several crucial tenant spaces allowed for the construction of the high-concept Eataly Toronto — a vast culinary utopia.
Eataly reflects the distinguishing characteristics of the biodiversity of the Italian culinary repertoire, focusing on the finest regional-specific products and traditional ingredients Italy has to offer. Also on offer is a selection of small-scale specialty products from dairy farmers, cheesemakers and butchers. This is part of Eataly’s philosophy of procuring locally-sourced products.
You can sip Italian wine, a Negroni, Aperol Spritz or other Italian aperitivo while you shop, peruse the aisles or partake in a tasting or cooking class. There is seating for 400 in the three restaurants. A fourth, Trattoria Milano, will open soon on the main floor next to Il Gran Caffé, an upscale full-service coffee bar from Italian coffee roaster illy. The ground floor caffé offers high-quality coffee-based drinks, confectionery, panini, and a selection of Italian wines, beer and spirits.
There are multiple market counters, including a butcher, a baker, a cheesemonger, fresh mozzarella counter, olive oil and balsamico tasting bar, and fresh pasta and pizza counters. There are also fruit and vegetable stands in the food emporium. Eataly features several bars, a cooking school and an in-house brewery (in partnership with Toronto’s Indie Alehouse Brewing Co.).
Menu offerings are traditional and straightforward, featuring hand-crafted and quality Italian ingredients, executed with skill and an eye to detail. In Italy, gastronomy developed along provincial lines. Until the unification of Italy in 1861, there was no national Italian cuisine. The reality of Italian cookery is that it is a merger of distinct and diverse regional cuisines and their subsets. The home still remains the safeguard of Italian indigenous cooking and culinary traditions, and this is reflected in the restaurant’s offerings.
On our first visit we ate at La Piazza, a restaurant in the heart of the store. Its concept was inspired by the traditional Italian town square. The tables are situated close together. We arrived promptly at 11 a.m. to get a good table overlooking Balmuto Street. La Piazza does not take reservations, and the restaurant filled up quickly. From a fairly extensive menu, we ordered agnolotti del plin brasato con burro, (Piedmontese-inspired pork- and veal-stuffed pasta) with a traditional sauce of butter and sage and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Agnolotti del plin’s name is derived from the regional dialect for “pinch,” which is how the pasta is formed. This course was followed by a creamy Burrata (fresh cow milk cheese) served at room temperature, from the region of Puglia, and a side of house-marinated green olives with bay leaf, chilli and citrus. Next we had the thick-crust Capricciosa pizza baked in a small round pan and topped with Gran Biscotto prosciutto, Cotta Rovagnati (cooked ham from the region of Lombardy), olives (there are an estimated 538 cultivars of olives in Italy), artichokes, homemade hand-stretched mozzarella and Mutti-brand tomato sauce. Three distinct regional types of pizza are available in different areas. Servers are knowledgeable about the cuisine.
Fresh kinds of region-specific pasta, prepared from scratch on-site, include fiore de zucca (literally pumpkin flower), ravioli de ricotta e spinaci, cacao e pepe alla Romana, black squid-ink linguine (which I purchased fresh for the 13-meatless-course “Vigilia” feast on Christmas Eve) campanelle, bucantini, quadrati and several other varieties. Every fresh pasta shape (we counted over a dozen) is extruded through a bronze mould and air-dried to ensure the pasta is of the optimal consistency to stick to the sauce. You can purchase pasta by weight at the counter and have it packaged in a pristine, white cardboard box for takeaway, or you can order different kinds of pasta to eat in one of the restaurants.
There are over 400 different varieties of regional cheese produced in Italy. Many varieties differ according to region and production method. A dedicated formaggio counter features many hand-crafted cheeses on rotation, including fresh types procured locally from Canadian suppliers. There is a 4-tier shelf of Parmigiano-Reggiano wheels, each one crafted with 500 litres of milk and priced around $2,000. In Italy, certification laws require that Parmigiano-Reggiano be made according to a specific recipe and production methods, and only within specific geographical regions.
Executive pastry chef Katia Delogu trained in Torino, the home of Eataly’s pastry program. Her team brings a passion for pure and simple ingredients to Eataly’s Pasticceria, from crunchy cantucci to buttery biscotti to Delogu’s mother’s take on tiramisu. Signature dolci (sweet desserts, cakes and pastries) exemplify the art of Italian confectionary. Torronato is a stunning hazelnut-nougat studded mascarpone cream, sweetened with honey, layered with espresso-soaked rice sponge cake, and finished with cocoa-dusted chocolate squares. There is millefoglie alla gianduja, flaky puff pastry layered with gianduja (paste made of chocolate and ground hazelnuts) pastry cream, frosted with Chantilly cream and finished with crushed hazelnuts and gianduja. There is the incredible Italian gourmet chocolatier Venchi, a cannoli station, and an artisanal gelato station featuring flavours such as maple and pistachio.
As an Italian culinary aficionado, student and teacher, trips to Italy have been among my favourite culinary journeys. Eataly brings an authentic Italian experience to downtown Toronto.