If you have ever visited an IKEA store I’m sure you have vivid memories of the experience. The stores are huge (30,000 square meters on average, I’m told, although there’s one in South Korea that’s almost twice that size).
Each store is organized around a journey that customers take from room to room, space to space, category to category, pausing only at the restaurant for Swedish meatballs before passing through the check stands, their bags and carts filled with Scandinavian-inspired home goods.
IKEA of Food and Wine?
FICO Eataly World, located just outside of Bologna, Italy, reminds be a bit of IKEA, especially because of the journey its visitors take. But there are many differences, too. Eataly World is much larger than an IKEA store. At 100,000 square meters (over 1 million square feet!), it is more than three times the size of your typical IKEA and almost twice as large as that Korean super-IKEA. Food (and wine) are at the center of the experience. And Italy, not Sweden, is the guiding star.
Sue and I visited FICO Eataly World during a recent stop in Bologna, where we lived for a semester some 20 years ago when I taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Center there. We’ve visited other Eataly locations in the past — New York City, Milan, and the much smaller Eataly Bologna located in the historic center’s famous market, just steps from our old apartment on Via Pescherie Vecchie. But this one was different in more ways than scale.
FICO (Fabbrica Italiana Cantadina) Eataly World is located outside the city core, close to the convention centers that draw thousands of visitors to Bologna each year. Lots of free parking and regular bus service from the train station makes it easy to access. But the location on the outskirts changes things a bit — Eataly World is a stand alone culinary theme park destination where the other Eatalys we’ve visited have been more integrated into their neighborhoods.
The Eataly stores in New York and Milan bring a whole Italian market, with shops, restaurants, and vendors of fish, cheese, salumi, fruits and vegetables and so forth, all under one roof with all the hustle and bustle you would expect. The central Bologna Eataly is a little different — the bookshop is the main feature that I remember — but that’s because it is embedded in a historic bustling market just off Piazza Maggiore and does not need to recreate one. The food court, located across the alley from the main store, is a fine addition since our last visit.
Eataly World’s vast scale suggests a grander vision. There are dozens of shops and stalls featuring distinctive foods from all over Italy, and 45 “eating points” — kiosks, cafes, restaurants — serving regional cuisine. There are 20 acres of small demonstration farms and vineyards, so you can meet the pigs and squeeze the grapes, and some of the final products are actually produced on site. We ran into a group of small children who watched in fascinating through a glass wall as a robotic baker made batch after batch of tasty cookies.
You can make of Eataly World what you like — a place to shop or hang out, a place to eat and drink, or even an opportunity to exercise (you can rent bikes to shorten your journey time inside the big building). But education is an important function, too, both the organized classes that are always on offer and the one-to-one conversations with staff at each stand.
What About the Wine?
One of our goals in visiting FICO Eataly World was to see how they dealt with Italian wine. This is a big task as Italy is home to hundreds of grape varieties and thousands of wineries. I nearly went crazy trying to narrow the wine list down to a few important wines in my book Around the World in Eighty Wines. It would take an IKEA-sized facility to do real justice to the diversity of the wines of Italy — and that is more space than even Eataly World has to spare.
That said, the wine program we found was very good. There were 2000 wines for sale, organized by Italian region as they should be, ranging from modest to noble. More to the point, there were 100 different wines available by the glass or in flights.
A knowledgeable young staff member ascertained our interest in learning about Lambrusco and arranged a small tasting of two completely different ideas of the wine, both quite dry but one dark and powerful and the other lighter and fruity (see photo below). It was a good experience and a good way to learn about the wines and have fun, too.
Wine calls for food and there was a nice Bolognese restaurant attached to the wine shop — one food/wine option among many at Eataly World. We had lunch at a foccacia shop (we saw the foccacia being made in front of us). I had a sandwich with Mortadella and a glass of that dark Lambrusco — great combination.
So what should we think of FICO Eataly World and its ambitious wine program? Well, what do you think of IKEA? Personally, I find it kind of bewildering with the crowds, noise, and its cornicopia of products, most of which are irrelevant to my life. But I like to go there — yes, for the meatballs — because it isa place where I can get ideas and stumble upon things that I didn’t know I would like. It surprises and delights more than it confuses, I guess.
I kind of like FICO Eataly World in the same way I kind of like IKEA. Based on our single visit, it seems full of stuff that overwhelms but gives me ideas and a chance to stumble on something I wasn’t looking for (the Sicilian shop and its great cannoli and espresso).
But there is a big difference between IKEA and FICO Eataly World. Ultimately IKEA succeeds when it allows its visitors to find their own voice, in a way, through the designs that they choose and the products that they bring into their homes. That’s a big challenge and it says something about IKEA that it is so successful.
But Eataly World sets even a bigger challenge. It wants to tell the story of Italian food and wine and that topic is so vast and complex that it makes IKEA seem simple by comparison. I am not convinced that Eataly World really does justice to its mission, but how could it? It was fun to visit and see which elements of Italian food and wine culture stood out and which ones did not.
Sue’s take on Eataly World was quite positive. It was like a giant first-class IKEA food court where you wanted to try everything even though that would be impossible to do. She especially appreciated the educational components and loved the family-friendly animal exhibits. She thought that, taken on its own terms in both the food and wine components, Eataly World represents Italy very well.
Will we go back to Eataly World on our next visit to Bologna? I dunno. We were there on a quiet Friday morning. I’d like to visit the place when it is busier just to see if it feels like the Bologna market when it is crowded, which is pretty much all the time. But that Bologna market neighborhood is fantastic — Italy World — and I’m not sure Eataly World can compete with it!
If I had to choose between Eataly World markets and the real markets in the centro storico of Bologna, there is no question where I would go. I’d be having a glass of Pignoletto frizzante wine and a plate of Mortadella at Simoni’s Laboratorio on Via Pescherie Vecchie every time rather than taking the red bus out to the fiera district.
Here is Sue’s photo of two very different ideas of Lambrusco. Enjoy!