When we first spoke to Lidia Bastianich about the inspiration behind EATaly, the Italian mega-market in New York that she opened with son Joe and Mario Batali, we had yet to experience the swanky 5th Avenue market churning out thousands of loaves of bread, handmade pasta and plates of antipasti a day. With the recent rumors about the Italian superstore possibly coming to L.A., EATaly was our first stop on a recent visit to New York.
In a nutshell: When we casually mentioned to one employee that hundreds of people must work at EATaly, she laughed and said, “At least.” And like everyone else, she warned us not to return on the weekends. “It is packed, you can't move.” Fortunately, we were there on a Thursday, so we were able to make ourselves terribly annoying by chatting incessantly with the most interesting folks. You know, those rare employees who aren't treating their retail shop tenure as yet another job, but who are true experts in their chosen obsession. Guys like Sal Barrafato, the New Jersey “mozzarella guy.” Turn the page for more.
Before we get to Barrafato, a little more on EATaly. We were expecting high price tag items a la Dean & Deluca, but there were actually pastas to be had for $2 and several imported olive oils – hard to find ones at that – for around $10 (Didier Elena, the Monaco-born chef behind Alain Ducasse's Adour says he shops at EATaly on occasion to snag hard-to-find Sardinian oils for the restaurant). But the “Italian” restaurants onsite felt a little too contrived for our taste, and we got a kick out of the Holy Trinity of Lidia-Mario-Joe books on display in one corner — though we were jealous of those cheese and bread counters. Then we met Barrafato.
Barrafato isn't a former line cook plucked from the depths of eggs Benedict hell, given a few hours of stretch-and-pull training and set up in front of the gawking crowds at EATaly. The Italian-American has been making mozzarella by hand since he was 12 years old. “Ma announced I was going to Joe's to make cheese,” he says in a thick New Jersey accent. “Joe” is Joe Murdocca, a neighbor and friend whose family still makes handmade cheese. While Murdocca focuses on retail mozzarella sales and hits local grocery stores to do demos, Barrafato went the catering route. His menu is heavy on Italian dishes and of course, fresh mozzarella.
“Me and Joe don't compete, he does his thing with the stores, I do mine with catering,” explains Barrafato as he stretches a ball of warm mozzarella that he has just pulled out of a warm water bath. That his main livelihood is not making and selling the cheese, but using it as an ingredient in dishes for his catering business, is pretty remarkable. What caterer has, or makes the time, to actually make their own fresh mozzarella? “You have to have good mozzarella,” Barrafato says matter-of-factly.
How did EATaly — a high-end supermarket, in essence — end up with such a seasoned mozzarella maker? He got the gig via a text message. Of course he did. “They flew out some Italians to make the mozzarella when they first opened, and I guess they couldn't find anybody local to do it,” Barrafato says over an macchiato at EATaly's coffee bar. “I get this message, do I want to meet some people? Sure. I'm sort of the only guy around [New York/New Jersey] that does this, other than Joe.”
Barrafato says that on busy days, the number of customers can be overwhelming. “They don't stop, they come right up in your face, right up here,” he says, gesturing at his cheek from behind his cheese-making station. “It's just the way it is,” he says, shrugging (he shrugs a lot). But he echoes the sentiment of EATaly “vegetable butcher” Joseph Nieves across the hallway who told us: “After thirteen years of being back of the house, I love being out front here, talking to people all the time,” says Nieves, setting out sample-size cups of farro for customers to sample. “You can't do this sort of thing anywhere else, cook and talk to people.”
The recent “artisanal” craze (see our most annoying food word list) has also made talking to folks about cheese curds a new job requirement. “What's this, all of these people suddenly wanting to talk to me and fly me out to do demos?,” asks Barrafato. “Nobody paid me any attention before, and that was just fine. An actor in L.A. just called me, people from the Hamptons, and people in Canada keep calling, wanting to fly me out there, too, to watch me make cheese. That's crazy.”
“Crazy” pretty much sums up our EATaly experience. Crazy good? Sure. A little scary in that charming “mini-Italy” packed into 50,000 not-so-quaint square feet way? Yes. Or as an off-the-record NYC chef we ran into aptly summed up: “It's incredible the first time, too much the next, and by the third time, you aren't really sure what it is.”