If you're a lover of cheese and carbs, you'll love Toronto's Italian food emporium, Eataly
I always look at hypes with a bit of skepticism as more often than not, the reality fails in comparison to the expectation. For Eataly, this was not the case. In fact, here we are, amidst a quarantine, and I am still swooning over my delicious meal of epic cheeses and other Italian staples.
When you first walk into this massive three-level emporium - it can be a bit (okay, a lot) overwhelming. Due to its size, it's hard to tell where to start. The street level entrance brings you to a large foyer, on the left, is Eataly's narrow coffee bar, Il Gran Caffe Illy; think baked goods and paninis paired with your choice of caffeine - perfect for a casual meet-up or a quick pick-me-up.
On the right, you can take the escalator up to its marketplace, grocery store and restaurants or take the stairs down to the in-house brewery. As much as I adore visiting micro breweries, food was my number one priority so upstairs we went! For a first-timer coming in on a busy Friday night (seems like it was a lifetime away now that we are in self isolation mode), it can be pretty hectic with bodies going in all directions; your senses are inundated with smells of fresh bread, oven-baked pizza, deli meats and raw seafood laying on ice, mixed with sights of cured meats hanging from the ceiling, add rows upon rows of merchandise on shelves and pathways to more of everything no matter which way you look. It takes a minute to absorb it all, until you finally decide on a path to walk in.
On the bright side, the path is one giant circle so there really is no wrong way of doing it; you'll get a chance to see everything as long as you're walking in one direction. The entire upstairs is designed with an open concept so visually it makes the space look expansive. Other than the small partitions for the restaurants, it's like walking into a giant market with individual areas for cheeses, deli meats, fresh pastas, oils and vinegars, a pizzeria, a bakery, a butcher's counter, a gelato counter, a bread counter, and then an actual grocery store! The space is very interactive and despite the countless elements, it is well organized once you get the hang of it.
If you are looking to dine at one of Eataly's four restaurants (once it's safe to), I recommend doing some research beforehand to decide which you'd like to visit and immediately put your name on the waiting list when you arrive or reserve in advance here (only two of the restaurants allow reservations). That way, you can take your time to roam around and discover the place in all its glory while waiting for your table to be ready.
For a hungry table of 5, we opted for the restaurant with the shortest wait. We put our name down at La Pizza & La Pasta (can you guess what they specialize in?), grabbed a drink at Birroteca bar around the corner and before we knew it, we were seated at our table within 20 minutes. La Pescheria looked to be the busiest with its extensive seafood menu, fresh oysters and catch of the day on offer.
Despite how busy the place was, service was friendly from beginning to end. Servers were knowledgeable about the items on the menu and explained how their dining service worked to manage expectations. With the way the emporium is set up, each eatery doesn't actually have its own full kitchen. As a result, dishes come to the table as they become available from its respective area: pizza comes from the pizzeria, drinks from Birroteca, pasta from the kitchen, etc. This worked great for us as our group was okay with communal style dining and shared the plates as they came. It might not be so great for those who prefer to wait for everyone's meals to arrive at the table before eating.
With a name like La Pizza & La Pasta, there's no doubt the mains of the menu consisted of only this. If you're looking for variety, the only alternatives were off the appetizers list. And a fairly decent size list it was, ranging from salads, fried dishes, cured meats and the holy grail of mozzarella selection. Everything from the mozzarella bar is served simply with Olitalia extra virgin olive oil and sea salt - that's it! When you've got quality ingredients and skilled technique, it really doesn't require much accompaniment for a tasty dish. We went with the Housemade Fior Di Latte ($12): hand-pulled in house with local Ontario cheese. It was absolute divinity in the purest form.
One of the best things about dining with others is sometimes you get lucky and get to try something you would have never otherwise ordered. In this case, it was the carciofi fritti a.k.a. fried artichoke ($14). I have nothing against artichokes but it has never been an ingredient that struck me as enticing. This dish proved simplicity really is the ultimate in sophistication. Crisp outer layer with a warm tender centre, the artichoke is lightly seasoned and served with a lemon garlic crema and lemon wedge. The mix of tangy and creamy really did wonders for this otherwise naked vegetable. It was the first time that I truly appreciated this underrated green and can proudly say that I am now a convert!
Already impressed, we move onto the entrees of the evening. It was obligatory that we try the pastas while dining at an Italian establishment. Yet again, the dish with the least ingredients and the simplest preparation stood out the most. The Lo Spaghetto al Pomodoro at a pretty affordable price of $12 is served with cosi com'e datterino tomato, ROI extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian sea salt and basil (with the added mozzarella di Bufala Campania for $9). The cosi com'e tomato is sourced directly from Campania in Southern Italy from a small 24-farm cooperative and directly translates to 'as they are' - it describes the mission in cultivating a true Italian product pure enough to enjoy as is - and I must say, they undoubtedly succeeded. To read more about this unique ingredient, Eataly talks about it here. The pasta secca (dry pasta) is also imported from Italy (Gragnano, Napoli) - which you can buy off the shelves in the market so you can reproduce this heavenly dish at home.
Special of the night was a white sauce pizza topped with cherry tomatoes, burrata, mushrooms, prosciutto and basil. I never say no to burrata. There's nothing quite like a supple, soft, white cheese spilling out from its firm encasing onto a beautiful dough that's baked just right; a quality bread-like crust with a slight chew on the inside. We had two other pizza selections in addition to this - a four cheese as well as the Bufalotta - classic options, all of which came with the same great dough with some variations in the toppings. I was in paradise!
If you know me, what transcends paradise, is dessert. The greater the meal, the more room I mysteriously have for a little dolci. Eataly seems to know this by all its small sized apres meal offerings. Il Gelato screams my name as we depart the restaurant. Authentic Italian ice cream made in-house, need I say more? A scoop of the Fior di Latte later and I was one happy camper.
Besides ice cream, sorbet and affogato, you can also find an array of pastries from hand-filled cannolis to cakes and biscottis as well as a dedicated counter to chocolate truffles all under one all-encompassing, gastronomic roof. Best of all, these come in great packaging so that you can bring all this goodness home with you or gift to your fellow foodies.
Just when you think it doesn't get any better than this, throw in a whole grocery store and you really don't need to go anywhere else. Talk about the perfect place to self quarantine. I had a ton of fun perusing the aisles filled with unique imported Italian goods. Rows of chocolates and noodles and pasta sauces to stock up your pantry. Then there are the fresh produce (locally-sourced) - fruits and exotic vegetables that you don't usually find at your typical grocer's. Even if you're not looking to shop, it's worth a walk around just to see the interesting products that fill the shelves. Also your body will be screaming for you to walk off that heavy, but extremely satisfying, dinner.
Fast forward to today's reality, I can say that I am one of the luckier ones as my biggest concern these days is finding ways to keep myself amused while staying home during this pandemic. Reliving memorable experiences like this and sharing it with you, is what makes a foodie like me hopeful things will bounce back soon and we will once again, get a chance to create more delicious memories together. Eataly, it is not farewell but see you, my friend. I can't wait to be back. Again. And Again. After self isolation.
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