This time of the year is the time when Love Actually resurfaces, a movie that I incidentally find extremely mediocre, mostly because it claims that the most romantic, joyous, and Christmas-y place is the airport. The slow montage of characters beaming in various gates at London Heathrow is frankly one of the greatest lies Hollywood has told—and I think we can all agree there have been a lot of lies emerging lately—because airports are by far the most frustrating, least romantic place on the planet. Not to go on a rant about seating classes and baggage fees, but I cannot think of a place that is less romantic and joyous. (NOTE: This blog is not a film review site, but I have a lot of opinions about Love Actually. If you are interested in those opinions, you may fill out a comment card.
In a city like New York, New York, indeed there are many places far more romantic than stress of constant construction at LaGuardia airport. The city is full of opportunity for love, not just while on a conventional date with a significant other, but also while sharing moments that turn into memories with roommates, sisters, old neighborhood pals. For these moments of true romance, there is the fountain in Central Park, the Temple of Isis in the Met, the stars on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal. For true romance, there is Eataly.
Ah, Eataly. There is something about the superstore of Italian cuisine that makes me tingle from head to toe. Love is in the air at Eataly, not just from the sweetly awkward first dates, but also from the families discovering Eataly for the first time, from the reunions of old childhood friends estranged for years, from the deep passion for good food that a blogger has, even while she eats alone with her Bear.
The Flatiron location of Eataly is on 5th Avenue, between 23rd and 24th Streets. The closest subway stations are 23rd Street on the 1, 6, Q, or R trains. If you can find Madison Square Park and the famous Flatiron building towering above you, just spin in a circle until you see the doors of Eataly beckoning you to enter.
I first came to Eataly in my first-year of college, a regrettably fraught and frustrating year, and one in which food was not so fabulous. A friend visiting New York with her mom introduced me to the towering halls of Mario Batali’s wonderland and brought me to the La Pizza & La Pasta dining section. For the first time since the Incident in the dining hall, I was enjoying a meal off-campus without a worry that I would be facing another ride to the emergency room.
That first meal at Eataly was simple and special. A penne al pomodoro with fresh Italian bread was wonderfully freeing from the anxiety of allergies. Even six years from that meal I remember the server being so confident in the kitchen’s abilities to deliver a product both safe and delicious, and I remember getting that first glimpse into the world of New York’s culinary scene.
This place was a place that people went to enjoy themselves, a place to get lost in the world of food, a place to fall in love with a plate full of pasta and a city full of potential. That plate of pasta launched a love story—the story of a girl with food allergies and her teddy bear discovering New York City.
Since then, I have returned to Eataly with all the frisson of that first time. Mario Batali’s Eataly concept has spread across the globe, and launched many endeavors in the world of food sustainability and innovation. Some of his other New York restaurants have proven to be as warm and welcoming and wonderful as Eataly’s dining rooms. The halls of Heathrow in Love Actually are meant to capture the excitement of seeing a loved one, but seeing that person across the table at Eataly is far better.
Some of my favorite pastas at Eataly are pastas that turned into memories, pastas that started a day full of orchids in greenhouses, and pastas that came at the end of a long sprint through the Flatiron District to find soft-serve fruit.
One pasta dish was a penne with a salted sausage and scallions. The cured meat mingled with the young onions in a perfect home-style flavor, oddly reminiscent of my grandmother’s Chinese cooking, even as I sat in an Italian dining room miles away from her kitchen. Each bite was filled with the flavors of salt and savory olive oil and memories, all lingering like an old daydream.
Not as novel but just as delicious is the trusty bucatiniall’amatriciana, a classic Roman pasta that combines tomatoes, guanciale, and a host of spices, including pepper, chili, and parsley. The capillary action offered by the bucatini allows for sauce to infuse the entire noodle, enveloping the sharp spiciness and warmth of the dish.
Eating at Eataly is a love story far better than a bumbling whirl of celebrities tumbling through a disjointed, poorly-written script. The entire warehouse is meant for you, and you alone, to marvel at kitchen gadgets, to delight in the vibrant colors of produce and packaging surrounding you, to drink a chilled Italian soda as you sweat through the crowds of the city. Rather than the agony of a missed connection, the calm warmth and welcoming atmosphere of Eataly leaves you feeling content, as though someone cares for you enough to accommodate allergies and truly deliver a dinner worth eating.
It is possible that as I’ve grown a little older I have grown more sentimentally attached to Christmas clichés of being together and sharing meals, but the Christmas season for us has always been about eating, whether with old neighborhood friends or with family. A film like Love Actually forgets that love is not about shopping for expensive gifts at Harrods, not about grand gestures with dramatic music, and certainly not about airports. Love is actually sitting down at a table together and sharing the intimacy and excitement of a perfectly cooked meal.