By Anthony Shu
The Neapolitan pizza is made with imported Italian buffalo mozzarella. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
Eataly has finally opened its long-awaited three-story food hall at the Westfield Valley Fair. With 45,000 square feet and a rooftop restaurant, Eataly Silicon Valley offers Italian foodies the opportunity to shop for groceries, browse specialties and enjoy wine, pizza and gelato all in one place.
A store with over 10,000 products can be overwhelming, so we enlisted the help of Viola Buitoni, an Italian food expert who teaches cooking classes in both San Francisco and Italy. She will be publishing a cookbook next year called Italy by Ingredient and serves as a nutritionist for the San Francisco Italian Consulate. We visited Eataly as part of a media tour before the store opened.
From dried pasta to fresh fish, here’s Buitoni’s guide to Eataly’s must-have products:
Salt of the Pope: According to Buitoni, naming a food after a religious office means the item is “very tasty and a little (a little) secret.” In Italy, historically, religious leaders received the best products, usually for free.
Pope salt has less of the bitter, mineral taste that defines many other salts because it’s sourced from the Adriatic Sea. Buitoni uses it to season salty fish and earthy root vegetables.
Pizza: Eataly’s Neapolitan pizza is made in collaboration with Naples-based chain Rossopomodoro, and the buffalo mozzarella is imported from Italy as the store couldn’t replicate it locally (fresh mozzarella is made from cow’s milk in-store).
Buitoni appreciates the mozzarella that tops Eataly’s pizzas and says the cheese should be judged by its milkiness. It should also not squeak when bitten into.
Umbrian lentils: Perhaps Buitoni’s favorite item in the entire store, these lentils hail from her native region of Umbria. She says they stay whole, cook within 20 minutes, and don’t need to be soaked.
Buitoni recommends sautéing the intensely flavored lentils with some pancetta, bay leaf, tomato paste and flavorings such as celery, carrot, onion or garlic. Then she deglazes the pan with red wine and slowly stews the lentils in a little water.
Campofilone pappardelle is wrapped to preserve the shape of the delicate pasta. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
Dried Noodles: Buitoni stares closely at each box of pasta, looking for streaks and bumps. She points to the rough edges and white and yellow stripes in the pasta made by Campofilone as an example of what she’s looking for. These details demonstrate the use of real eggs and that the pasta has not been reworked. Origin is also important and many of Eataly’s products come from Gragnano, an area known for its dried pasta.
A surprising note from Buitoni, pasta makers love American Manitoba wheat, which has a high protein content that produces strong gluten development. She says pasta made only with Italian grains generally has a more intense flavor, but that the lack of high-protein flour could compromise texture. Finally, she recommends looking for noodles that are boxed rather than bagged, especially if buying fragile shapes.
Mandarinata: While Buitoni finds most American sodas too sweet, this sparkling citrus drink is her go-to for a cooling summer drink.
All kinds of tomatoes: Buitoni points out that even among the celebrated San Marzano tomatoes, some growers make better products than others. She singles out the co-op-backed Gustarosso brand for its long-standing relationships with farmers.
She also loves triple strength tomato paste, which imparts an “unprecedented” depth of flavor and is hard to find here in the United States. She particularly recommends it to vegetarians who want to add richness to their dishes.
At the end of the tomato aisle, Buitoni points to Datterino tomatoes packed in water. She says companies that pack tomatoes in puree may be using sub-par tomatoes for the surrounding puree. These small tomatoes cook up quickly with oil and garlic over high heat, or can be mashed raw and spread on bread.
Scorpionfish / Rockfish and Monkfish: These two fish are found in the Mediterranean and Buitoni finds them delicious in Acqua Pazza, poached in tomatoes and water with black olives, garlic and basil. She also roasts them with potatoes and zucchini.
Orecchiette di grana arso gets its darker color from burnt wheat. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
Orecchiette di grano arso: This pasta, made from “burnt wheat”, comes from Apulia and represents the ingenuity of citizens and tenants. Burning the fields was part of the region’s agricultural cycle, and residents collected the leftover wheat. However, as economic conditions improved, Grano Arso became associated with poverty and began to fade as a culinary tradition. About 10 to 15 years ago, the locals began to recover the tradition of Grano Arso, returning to making this pasta with an ashy flavor that complements the wild herbs and bitter herbs common in Puglia.
balsamic vinegar: Buitoni recommends looking for both the word “traditional” and the proprietary round bottles that signify the highest qualities of balsamic vinegar. Extravecchio Vinegar from Modena is aged for at least 25 years and costs $199 a bottle at Eataly. Buitoni compares these vinegars and their slightly more recent black honey cousins, saying they’re the only ones you should pay a really high price for. Cheaper alternatives work well for cooking and heated sauces.
Piedmont hazelnuts: Buitoni enjoys these hazelnuts as snacks, in baking, over yoghurt and in salads and sauces. They are said to have a richer flavor than most commercially produced hazelnuts.
Passion fruit ice cream served with an edible flower garnish. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
Ice: The gelato department at Eataly Silicon Valley differs from counters at the megastore’s other locations thanks to a partnership with third-generation gelato chef Patrizia Pasqualetti. Pasqualetti, a San Francisco resident and former head ice cream maker at the city’s GIO Gelati, is starting her own business and continuing her family’s tradition of creating seasonal candies by opening stores in Yountville and Malibu.
Marvi’s toothpaste: The end of a great day of eating must end with proper hygiene, and Marvi’s toothpaste cannot be missing from Buitoni’s suitcase when she returns from Italy. The brand’s traditional flavors include ginger, cinnamon and amarelli liquorice.
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