Nothing exceeds like excess: Eataly versus Caputo's

The latest culinary shangri-la in Manhattan is Eataly, a 42,500 square foot (as advertised on their facebook page) megamall, cattycorner from the flatiron building at 23rd St. and 5th Ave. People love this place, and even if people are sometimes trying, I love food, so I made it a priority to go for a visit as soon as possible after my return from France. The feeling has something of a collision between a supermarket and a food court. There are seven restaurants dotted throughout a vast retail space filled with piles of every imaginable Italian delicacy. It's a bit like an airport in the way that the eateries are simultaneously inside but apparently doorless and open to the wide world. Picture all the seating in one of the lozenge-shaped terminals at LaGuardia removed and replaced with gleaming shelves of pasta.

 The strangely Sbarro's-looking brick-oven pizza joint at Eataly. I quite like the disco-ball ovens, perhaps the legacy of Mario Batali's Lower-east side club-crawling days.

 A few of the olive oils on offer at Eataly.

I haven't sat myself down and eaten in the place yet, and especially in New York one imagines that this is the principal point; Eataly isn't a food store with dining options, it's really seven restaurants using the shopping possibilities as the justificatory glue holding them together in one location. But from the shopper's perspective, there is fabulous stuff in Eataly: fresh figs, enough olive oil to make an artificial lake, dangling legs of prosciutto, an entire cookbook shop, and a bakery where you can watch bakers behind glass plumping and cossetting their loaves in preparation for loading them into the oven.

 The bakery-behind-glass at Eataly, my favorite feature.

Eataly is, all in all, spectacular, teeming with happy customers and goggle-eyed tourists whose minds seem to be blown by the amazing offerings. With all that abundant goodness, I've been wondering what it is about the place that rubs me the wrong way. The other day I stopped into Caputo's, at 460 Court St. in Brooklyn, for some of my favorite grilled and marinated artichoke hearts, and it hit me.

 Caputo's Fine Foods

Caputo's, for those who haven't been there, is a tiny Brooklyn food shop run by two Italian brothers. Over the last few years they have gradually taken over daily operations from their parents, a transition that accelerated after the passing of their mother, who I believe to be the originator of the artichoke hearts. If I can trust my palate, the brothers have not changed anything about the artichoke hearts, nor so much as one square inch of formica countertop, making Caputo's a sort of old-world throwback to a time when the Lower-east side was dotted with "Appetizing" stores and dozens of family salumerias thrived in the Italian immigrant neighborhoods of South Brooklyn.

 The cheese counter at Caputo's, which dominates the front of the store, forcing customers to snuggle past one another sideways on their way to the olive bar.

The store is roughly the size and shape of the railroad apartment I lived in for fifteen years on Essex St. Long, narrow, and claustrophobic, it is perhaps ten feet wide, although for much of its length most of the space is consumed by a glass fronted display counter full of cheeses, peppers stuffed with provolone, marinated mushrooms and, yes, the grilled artichoke hearts, so that customers coming in and out must edge carefully past one another. I'll estimate that Caputo's offerings are crammed into approximately 500 square feet. Therefore the entire store would fit into Eataly 85 times over.

Curatorial minimalism characterizes the window display at Caputo's.

The entirety of Caputo's.

Although the Manhattan Eataly is modeled after the debut Eataly in Torino (yes, obviously, Eataly is a chain, with more planned), this is nonetheless a contrast between American excess and an old-world sense of proportion. And while I'm certain the army of buffed and perky employees at Eataly were obliged to sit through classes on the differences between Coppa piacentina and Capocollo di Calabria, with a quiz on just which pastas are made with doppio zero flour, my preference for Caputo's is also about trusting the curatorial instincts of the family. There isn't room in the shop for five hundred olive oils, but I have a high degree of confidence that whatever they have will be excellent. The other day I bought a bottle of Chilean oil there, something I would never do at Fairway (and would be surprised to find at Eataly). It is delicious. I'm certain I could wait in the vast olive oil aisle at Eataly for the resident oil expert to come and regale me with tasting notes and biographical data on the producers of dozens of bottles, but at a certain point, please, just pick your ten best and let's move on. It's the creeping cancer of choice.

 Some of the pasta at Eataly

A bit more of the pasta selection at Eataly

In case you need some dried pasta, Eataly has some.

By now I'm paralyzed. Eataly has more square footage devoted to selling rafts of dried pasta than the entirety of Caputo's.

This is not a joke. It's Andreas Gursky does pasta, except it's real, not photoshopped.

The pasta corner at Caputo's. All made in the USA, because they make it themselves. You don't like it? What's wrong with you? It's not imported from Italy? So therefore you don't like it? What are you thinking? Go somewhere else, then. This pasta is delicious, so delicious that I only cook it only special occasions. Otherwise it would be dangerous.


Shaolin Sourdough

Amongst those participating in the grape harvest last month in the Loire were three residents of the local zen monastery who took time away from their practice to help out during the vendange. Agricultural work is congruous with Buddhist monastic life, just as it is with the lives of Belgian Trappistes and Dominican grappa distillers. Many of the pre-phylloxera vines in the eastern Loire may first have been planted by religious communities.

The zen monastery, they told me, is self-sufficient in wheat. They grow it, harvest it, mill it, and bake bread with it throughout the year. My friend Magali invited me to come and have a hands on lesson on her next baking day, but to my great regret I let the wine life take over, and failed to fit in a visit. I'm now using this as my excuse to justify my earliest possible return to the Loire.

However (if I say so myself), my ongoing bread experiments back home in Brooklyn continue to yield excellent results. Like winemaking, and perhaps any fermentation-based enterprise in which one attempts to harness the anarchic wild yeasts of the outside world, every episode, whether failure or unqualified success, brings with it knowledge. Baking is a constant process of learning, and therefore a metaphor for life.

Breakfast of Champions
In which I combine my interest in zen calligraphy with my current addiction to baking bread.

(Technical data in the comments)


Preparations 503 and 506

At risk of offending the fine folks who invited me to their shit-shoveling festival a few weeks back in the Loire valley, as recounted a couple of posts ago, I want to revisit the subject of biodynamic farming, because I'm now feeling I let those promoting the agricultural theories of Rudolph Steiner off a little too easily. It's easy to do so, and I think I know why. Because the goals of biodynamic farmers are so closely aligned with the natural wine, organic, fresh and local, and slow food movements, the more kooky elements that go into biodynamics have never emerged as a favored target of secular humanists. With all the evil in the world, why bother going after the possibly self-deluding biodynamic farmer? Furthermore, there seems to me to be little doubt that Steiner was prescient in comprehending the ravages of what would become industrial agriculture, and biodynamics is broadly concerned with soil health and sustainability, more than sixty years before that term became the overused mantra of the green movement. Why risk the perception that you are opposed to a thriving ecosystem, healthy eating, and happy animals by attacking biodynamics?

I wrote in that previous post that biodynamics "typically goes well beyond the basic prescriptions for organic farming." This is essentially true, but only if we are talking about the kind of co-opted organic farming decried by Michael Pollan, in which giant, industrial farms produce "organic" products on vast monocrop farms in order to exploit the marketing value of the term. And that wasn't what I meant: "organic" used to mean, to me, small, thoughtful pesticide-free farming of diverse plantings in a varied and complete ecosystem. Compared with this sort of agriculture, the ways in which biodynamics "goes well beyond...organic" seem upon further reflection to be limited to the mystical and the magical, namely the bizarre Steinerian preparations 500 through 508. The question then becomes: are the results of the biodynamic method superior to the results from any other less dogmatic approach to artisanal, pesticide and chemical-fertilizer-free farming? Are biodynamic farms superior in any way to other farms farmed by farmers deeply invested in soil health, the environment, and tasty eating?

 Preparation 506, in which Dandelion flowers are blanched and then packed into the peritoneum of a cow. This tiny bundle is then buried over the winter before being used as a sort of homeopathic additive to compost.

There are plenty of believers eager to point out that scientific evidence exists for the superiority of biodynamics. Some basic googling will bring up a host of such claims, but nothing I waded through went one simple step further and told you what that evidence is, or, heaven forfend, actually linked to a study demonstrating the point. If you want to enter deeper in this debate, take a look at Biodynamics is a Hoax, in which Napa vintner Stuart Smith pulls absolutely no punches under the subheading "Someone has to speak up."

 Chamomile flowers awaiting deployment in Preparation 503.

The moistened flowers are pushed through a funnel, stuffing for a length of cow intestine. 

 The finished product, a chamomile sausage. It's very attractive, but the problem is that I can't find anyone who can explain why adding this to your spring compost will "reactivate" the soil...

There is, sadly, a more cynical perspective from which to consider the success of biodynamics, at least in the wine world. Thierry Puzelat, with whom I spent most of October learning how to make wine, is a very good example of the kind of conscientious farmer who cares deeply about his land and vines and produces excellent plonk without subscribing to the strange prescriptions of Mr. Steiner. He has no quarrel with biodynamic farming, and buys plenty of grapes from friends like Bruno Allion who follow the Steiner line, but his own attitude is "show me the evidence." He told me that it is remarkable how often groups come in to the Puzelat cellars for a tasting and ask him "are these grapes produced in biodynamie?" This before so much as taking a sniff of the first glass. In other words, biodynamics has become so trendy that for some the Demeter stamp of approval is more important to their drinking experience, or their self-perception of what sort of wine drinkers they are, than what the wine actually tastes like. While I have yet to meet a biodynamic farmer who I felt was insincere or concerned with anything more than creating the best possible farm environment, in the face of fetishizing like this I'd be very surprised if there aren't some vintners out there who are burying horns full of manure just because they think they will turn to gold.

After the preparation of the magical packets, we dug a hole in the ground and lined it with old slate roofing tiles, in order to avoid cutting open the parcels with a shovel in the spring dig. I have a similar attraction/skepticism for the rituals of Haitian vodoun, which also often involve the meticulous preparation and burial of small parcels, known as wanga

 The burial.