A Public Market to Model

here and how we buy our food are important—affecting everything from dinner to local politics. It’s an aesthetic experience rich with both sensual and social interactions. Grocery stores, specialty shops and farmers and producers’ markets contribute greatly to a sense of place.

The Dane County Farmers’ Market—need we say more?

So it’s no wonder people are thinking deeply about markets and investing energy and resources in the discussion. The Milwaukee Public Market is still finding its identity. Whole Foods is expanding many of its markets, including the one here in Madison. Willy Street Co-op’s expansion plans (we hope) have been just temporarily thwarted. Slow Food has markets around the world on its agenda. And we’re well into the planning phase for a year-round public market here in Madison. So we had all of this in mind as we visited an extraordinary and revolutionary new market in Turin, Italy, called, both whimsically and appropriately, Eataly.

It’s tempting to describe Eataly as encompassing the individual aspects of so many of the markets we admire and enjoy around the world. But it is so much more than that. It is, in its own words, “a new paradigm in the world of food distribution and the marketing of high quality artisanal products, inspired by key concepts such as sustainability, responsibility and sharing.” At more than 33,000 square feet, the self-proclaimed world’s biggest food and wine center is housed in the former Carpano vermouth factory. As in many traditional markets, the largest space is broken up into areas devoted to specific products like fruits and vegetables, coffee, fish, cured meats and cheeses, a bakery and a wine cellar. There are also eating spaces—counters with high stools in the center of the market—which are also structured around different themes: fish, vegetables, meats, cured meats, pizza and pasta.

But the entire building is also interspersed with displays and exhibits meant to educate and explain. Signage describes the product’s regional origins and gives information about the growers and their farms. Displays highlight the typical products from a region and the importance of seasonality. On the lower floor there is a presentation of Slow Food Presidia products from around Italy, the only direct involvement by Slow Food, which serves as a strategic consultant but otherwise has no ownership in Eataly or commission from sales.

But the displays, together with the themed eating spaces, highlight the principle of “taste education” so central to the Slow Food mission. The belief is that taste education has a public value, so there are classes for children, cooking courses for adults and regular tastings of foods and wines. The public as well as associations and businesses are welcome to use the conference rooms and public spaces for meetings and events whether they’re connected to food or not. Other features of the market include a bring-your-own bottle dispenser of unpasteurized milk with a display that gives the exact date of the milking, an artisanal gelateria, a wood-burning oven that produces the best bread we’ve tasted in Italy, and glassed-in spaces dedicated to the aging of cured meats and cheeses.

Eataly was conceived around the concepts of sustainability and food awareness, but it’s also a welcoming and easy-to-use market. The restaurants are jammed during lunch hours, and locals engage merchants in the instantly recognizable Italian tradition of negotiating the best price for the highest-quality products. It is a combination of quality, ethical commitment and accessibility that must be the foundation for Madison’s public market.

And then there’s the coffee-roasting and retail operation in Eataly, Pausa Café, a business that extends the concept of sustainability to employment as well as product. More on that next month. Later this month, Eataly plans to open a ten thousand-square-foot market in a new building on West 48th Street in New York City, with a full-sized version planned for a second Manhattan location in 2011. www.eatalytorino.it

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to .