Can we stop calling it "Little Italy"?
The thought occurred the moment I crossed into the Republic of Eataly, a massive, chaotic place where jostling is law, a food emporium for which "emporium" sounds puny and "Italopolisplex" is closer to the truth.
The Republic of Eataly, which resembles an autonomous state, is found in Manhattan, not quite a year old, and judging from the line to get in, much hotter than Dubai; in fact, super-chef Mario Batali's temple to all things Italian is so popular, and replicable, that Dubai will probably have its own Eataly embassy in no time.
But then so will, oh, Lawrence, Kan. And Kansas City. And probably anywhere in this country where there is a patch of open space not already occupied by an restaurant, bakery or market.
So far, there are three Eatalys: in Manhattan, Tokyo and the original, which opened in Turin, Italy, in 2007 (along with several daintier outposts in Italy and Japan).
Indeed, what Eataly seems to represent is the pinnacle of America's enduring love for Italian food — an adoration so seemingly insatiable that Italian cooking isn't even included in the National Restaurant Association's annual trend report anymore, a representative told me. "Way too evergreen."
New York's Eataly, which occupies 50,000 square feet in the Flatiron district, was built by Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti, with Batali and Italian-food-gods/public-TV-staples Joe and Lidia Bastianich. The cynical call it a food court. But between those walls, you find: a fishmonger, an espresso bar, a wine store, a cheese shop, a cooking school and seven restaurants.
And bread. And circus.
Waiting for a fresh slice of burrata at the fromagerie, I could smell the veal smoked in hay at Batali's meat-centric restaurant, Manzo; tired from standing at the gelato counter (four bodies deep), we crept upstream to a chef plating translucent crudo, then stood tasting cured sardines so briny that the air stung.
It is to Italian cooking what New York's Dean & DeLuca is to upscale groceries and San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is to artisan — a dizzying, all-inclusive package trip into a kind of eating. You may hate it before you're done (everything arrives with a side of elbows), but you'll go.
In other words, while every third cookbook these days espouses Italian, and every other new restaurant offers branzino, we actually take for granted just how pervasive Italian has become.
"It's like that line from Neil Simon about the two laws in the universe, 'the law of gravity, and everyone loves Italian food,'" says Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America.
Indeed, in 2000, the NRA did a survey of the most popular ethnic foods — Italian won. And it hasn't conducted a similar survey since. What's the point?
"I have kids. When we want comfort food, we talk pizza or pasta," Ryan says. "Because Italian food has become comfort food. The trade-off is the air of exclusivity, and expense, which people equate with quality."
In other words, because of ubiquity and relative inexpensiveness, Italian cooking spent a long 20th century standing behind French cooking, craved and eaten but not nearly as appreciated. There was, however, another reason for this: the ingredients.
In her classic 1954 study "Italian Food," British writer Elizabeth David noted: "There is no reason … why we should not combine the best which (Italy) has to offer … with materials at our disposal in this country." Actually, there was a quite practical reason why not.
Good, authentic Italian ingredients were rare outside Italy.
"What changed Italian food in America, and really everywhere, was the explosion of international shipping," says John Mariani, author of "How Italian Food Conquered the World." "Take Federal Hill in Providence, or Little Italy in New York or the North End in Boston, and 99 percent of the restaurants in those places for a long time were heavy on red sauces and the same 10 menu items.
I think there was almost a condescending regard for Italian food sometimes. But what changed was … in the 1970s and 1980s, when we started to import extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegars, real Italian prosciutto."