An Amusement Park for Foodies


A million square feet of Italian delicacies.

That was the first thing I heard about FICO Eataly World, the new culinary attraction in Bologna, Italy.

Like many food lovers, I knew Eataly for its grocery stores: Years earlier I’d visited the original Eataly mega-delicatessen in Turin, and I’d seen the headlines when oversize Eataly branches had opened in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. I knew Eataly usually offered hundreds of varieties of rare Italian olive oils, arcane pastas, obscure salumi and other treats. But for years I’d heard that the company was working on a much larger project known as Eataly World near Bologna. It was supposed to be more than one million square feet, making it about 20 times larger than the sprawling Eataly in Midtown Manhattan. Frustratingly, its debut seemed to be pushed back repeatedly.

But eventually an opening was announced: Nov. 15 of this year. As soon as that date was set, I booked a ticket to Bologna and started dreaming of the delicious foods I’d try there, though I didn’t exactly know what else to expect. But then I saw that a number of culinary workshops would also be available, and I realized that my tasting trip might turn out to be a learning experience as well.

One of the first things I learned after my plane touched down: In Bologna, nobody calls the new gourmet amusement park “Eataly” or even “Eataly World.” Instead, everyone calls it FICO, an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Contadina, or “Italian farming factory.” The name above the main gate says FICO. The bus you take to get there is the FICO bus. (It leaves from the city’s main train station, Bologna Centrale, every 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the day; a round-trip ticket costs 7 euros, or about $8.35.)

At more than one million square feet, FICO is more mall than food court.CreditAndy Haslam for The New York Times

The second thing I learned: FICO is freaking huge.

I got there just after the gates opened on the afternoon of Nov. 15, joining a crowd of locals, functionaries and journalists; the inaugural guests had included Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, among other bigwigs. After grabbing a free sample of juicy porchetta, I started heading west at a good clip. Ten minutes later, I stopped to inspect the goods at a barbecued ribs stand. Peering forward, I realized I was only about halfway through the place.

The space was absolutely vast, with high ceilings and south-facing windows that let in lots of light. Farther down I could see people playing volleyball on a sand court, as well as other sporty types playing paddle tennis on a different court, followed by more shops and displays. There are wide bike lanes running down the middle of the long, roughly L-shaped complex, and dozens of kiosks and stands between the bike lanes and the pedestrian walkways on either side of the long hall. Benches, couches and remarkably comfortable chairs filled many of the areas in between, as well as planters and fountains; the backs of the kiosks appeared to be covered with living moss. The atmosphere was pleasant and airy.

But what was it, really? It felt like a food court that had metastasized into an entire mall. In the prime spots along the walls where you’d expect to see a Hot Topic or a Yankee Candle were dozens of food producers, including a panettone bakery, a brewpub and at least three pasta manufacturers. There were kiosks specializing in street food from regions like Puglia and Calabria, as well as high-end and middlebrow restaurants. One had dedicated itself to prosciutto, and a nightclub-style “bar” focused on Bologna’s beloved cured meat, mortadella. There was no Forever 21, but the Fontanafredda enoteca boasted that it served 100 Italian wines by the glass.

There are some 45 trattorias, restaurants and food kiosks at FICO.CreditAndy Haslam for The New York Times

That was the type of gustatory hyper-consumption that I had expected. But, in the era of experiential travel, the educational angle really appealed to me. The next morning, I returned for a few culinary workshops, starting with an introduction to dried pasta at a small factory owned by Di Martino, a pastificio from the historic pasta-producing town of Gragnano near Naples. After she showed us how durum wheat is turned into semolina and then pasta, I asked the guide, Maria Teresa, what she thought FICO was all about.

“Italy is a special country,” she said. “Every region, even every city has its special recipes and special foods. A place like this is very important because you can taste all the different shades of Italian food culture.”

I got less practical information than I’d hoped for at Di Martino, but the next class provided serious knowledge. At SfogliAmo, a wonderfully patient teacher, Elena, taught us how to make Bologna’s traditional tortelloni and tagliatelle from our own fresh pasta, starting with just a bowl of flour and a couple of eggs.

As we practiced cutting and folding our shapes, a gaggle of elderly women began to gather around, offering advice, including one local zdora — which Elena defined as a “food cooker lady” — who offered it quite demonstratively. I might not have known exactly what I’d find at FICO, but I hadn’t traveled all that way to get heckled by someone’s grandma.

“She’s just saying you have to pinch it harder,” Elena explained, gently taking a tortellone out of my hand and showing me again how to join the two corners to make a ring. I kept at it, and soon I was hearing approving words like “bene” and “perfetto” from the gang of grandmothers.

That type of hands-on training felt invaluable. Other educational aspects were less compelling. FICO has six multimedia centers, called giostre, which offer information on different themes. Some of these are clearly meant for children — when I stepped toward a booth that would tell me to find out “how many animals tall” I was, the screen said, “One at a time, please!” (Ouch!) On the other hand, the semi-clothed modern dance duet in the short film “Fiamme” in FICO’s “Man and Fire” exhibit would probably need at least a PG-13 rating.

A horticultural exhibit.CreditAndy Haslam for The New York Times

Moreover, it was hard not to notice a slightly propagandistic angle. Above the entrance, an inscription claimed that Europe is home to 1,200 types of apples, and that Italy itself accounts for 1,000 of those. Those numbers struck me as strange. When I got home, I wrote to Pete Brown, the British author of The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit, who replied that there are at least 4,000 varieties of apples in Britain alone, noting that Joan Morgan’s “New Book of Apples” details the characteristics of 2,000 British apple varieties, while not even pretending to be comprehensive.

Similarly, in a workshop on gelato and sorbetto, our instructor explained the difference between gelato and ice cream: “Ice cream was invented in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century and is an industrial product. Gelato was born in Italy in the 16th century, and it’s an artisanal product.” So, I wondered, when Martha Washington offered ice cream to presidential guests in 1789, was she actually serving gelato?

I puzzled over these and similar questions the next evening as I met a friend over a plate of salumi. By then I had sampled dozens of types of food, both high- and lowbrow. I’d splurged on a blowout lunch of savory bottarga roe in foamy zabaione (20 euros) and sturgeon with meaty finferli mushrooms (35 euros) at Cinque, a luxe restaurant from the Michelin-starred chef Enrico Bartolini, and had attempted to eat a kiosk’s Florentine-style lampredotto sandwich (6 euros), which I’d surprisingly found inedible. I had spent three days at FICO at that point, and I still didn’t quite understand what exactly it was trying to be. Was it a shopping mall with culinary classes? An educational center with suspect materials? A homage to Italian food culture that occasionally swerved toward Leni Riefenstahl territory? And that was when I tasted the culatello di Zibello.

It’s much better than prosciutto, my friend explained, a Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, or “protected designation of origin,” dried ham so rare that it didn’t even have its own English-language Wikipedia page when I looked it up afterward — Saveur magazine had run an explainer-style introduction to culatello only a few months earlier. Produced only around the river Po, the paper-thin slices of air-dried ham smelled as funky as a well-aged blue cheese: richly aromatic and just slightly phenolic. It was easily the single best thing I’d tasted at FICO, perhaps ever.

Bikes are one way to explore Fico.CreditAndy Haslam for The New York Times

Sure, the multimedia giostre were a bit silly, and yes, there was a lot of hippie-esque talk about biodynamics and how the Earth is the mother of us all. Some displays, like the truffle garden outside, were completely hokey: Of course, truffles didn’t actually grow there, the guide had explained with a laugh, they were simply buried in the ground for truffle-hunting demonstrations. But there was something to FICO after all, if only for the amount of what was available to sample: Even after three days, I still hadn’t visited all of its kiosks and restaurants.

However, I had learned about a wonderful delicacy that I hadn’t even known existed, and I had learned how to make tortelloni good enough to earn praise from a local grandmother.

For that alone, it was worth the trip.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page TR5 of the New York edition with the headline: Food Lovers, Here’s Your Amusement Park. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



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