The industrial suburbs of Turin may sound like an unlikely setting for a retail phenomenon that's taking Italy's food and wine scene by storm. But it was there, in a converted Carpano vermouth factory in the northwest of the country, that Eataly, the world's first quality Italian food megastore, was opened in January 2007. The store, which now boasts an annual turnover of more than $50 million, was the brainchild of local entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, a man with a Midas touch.
Son of a wartime resistance partisan, Farinetti made his fortune with a chain of electrical appliance stores, which he sold in 2003 with the idea of developing a food emporium that would appeal to gourmets without intimidating the ordinary punter - as places like Selfridge's in London or Peck in Milan tend to do, he reckons. He turned for advice to his old friend Carlo Petrini, president of the international Slow Food movement, which is based in the small market town of Bra, 60km south of Turin.
"We chose Slow Food as a strategic and tactical consultant," says Farinetti. "Strategic in developing the format, tactical in the building of the supply chain." By which he meant cutting out intermediaries between supplier and point of sale and shortening the distance food travels from producer to plate. Petrini assigned the task of coordinating Slow Food's collaboration to Sebastiano Sardo, a law graduate-cum-gastronome. "First I picked a team of colleagues," Sardo told me, "then we spent two years creating a database of quality suppliers, tasting their products and simulating supermarket layouts and shelving. Thanks to our Slow Food experience, we knew all about traditional cured meats and cheese and the like, less about crackers and cornflakes, say."
At Eataly, you can buy everything from the prized beef of the local Piedmontese breed of cattle to extra-virgin olive oil from the Ligurian Riviera, from fresh fish from the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic to bread baked in a wood oven with stone-ground flours from the Marino family mill in nearby Cossano Belbo - the list could go on forever. Even the mineral water comes direct from the Maritime Alps.
And if all the bounty on display whets your appetite, no problem. Each department (Vegetables, Salumi and Cheese, Meat, Fish, Pasta, Pizza, Wine, Pâtisserie and Beer among them) has its own eatery, where you can order any of the 100 traditional dishes served every day. On offer in the meat section might be Piedmontese beef stew, say, while in the fish area it might be baby octopus or moscardini with polenta, or a platter of preserved anchovies and tuna with curls of butter from the local Beppino Occelli dairy.
Durum wheat pasta from Gragnano just outside Naples - generally regarded as Italy's finest - is served with a choice of two sauces ("one from the land, one from the sea"), while the pizza served is "la vera pizza Napoletana", baked in wood ovens and topped with the best fior di latte mozzarella from Agerola, also near Naples, and San Marzano tomatoes.
Besides serving apéritivi and laying on tastings of Italy's greatest crus, the wine cellar houses the Guidoper Eataly restaurant, established by brothers Piero and Ugo Alciati, who also own the Michelin-starred Guido Ristorante in the country village of Pollenzo. Here it's not uncommon to sniff a whiff of truffle in the air.
Eataly's wood-panelled olde-worlde coffee bar, Caffè Carpano, conjures up the atmosphere of the elegant historic cafés of downtown Turin. The Guatemalan coffee is roasted by inmates in Turin prison as part of a Slow Food-devised training scheme, and the chocolate comes from Guido Gobino, one of the city's top chocolatiers.
With his cherubic face and twinkling eyes, Farinetti eschews sharp suits for a jumper and jeans, and his catchword is optimism. This comes over in Eataly's communication, which he manages virtually single-handedly - artisan advertising for artisan products. "Oscar is a one-man press office," one Eataly employee told me. The Turin newspaper La Stampa regularly runs full-page ads in which Farinetti conveys his unique mix of commercial acumen and social conscience. "At least let's eat and drink," one ad read. "In this period of crisis," it continued, "it's a good idea to keep morale high and react… High-quality food costs just a little bit extra. If you decide to eat and drink less (which is very good for you), you'll spend even less. So come to Eataly, dine and do your shopping. You'll even learn something and you'll be in good company."
Learning is the key. Like Slow Food, Eataly sets great store by education. Hence its 1000-book food library and its two teaching kitchens, where tasting courses, cookery demonstrations and meetings with producers are organised. Walking around the store, you're also constantly confronted by posters and displays explaining product origin, traceability and seasonality.
Following the Turin example, Farinetti has opened Eataly outlets in Pinerolo, 40km west of Turin, as well as Genoa, Milan and Bologna, and in Tokyo and New York abroad. The Big Apple emporium - complete with a rooftop brewery and gastropub, cafés and five restaurants - was opened on Fifth Avenue in August 2010 by celebrity chefs and restaurateurs Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali. Batali designed the menus himself in tune with the Eataly philosophy. "The green movement, sustainability, the new world of small-farm sourcing. I'm turned on by that," he told Time magazine. "It's a whole new palette to work from."
Sebastiano Sardo's eyes light up when he speaks about the next Italian opening, scheduled for April in Rome. "It'll be the biggest Eataly of all. Like Harrods, but devoted solely to food. I've repeated the same job as I did for Turin, this time sourcing products mainly in central Italy." Situated above the tracks of the Roma Ostiense train station, south of the centre, the shop will be four-storeys high, cover an area of 15,000 square metres, and house 14 innovative restaurants. They say that all roads lead to Rome, but Farinetti's ambition doesn't end there, with plans to open a branch in São Paulo, Brazil. After that, who knows? Sydney or Melbourne, maybe?
Eataly, Via Nizza 230, Turin, Italy, +39 011 1950 6801.