Eataly has finally opened its long-awaited three-story food hall at the Westfield Valley Fair mall in San Jose. Spanning 45,000 square feet and home to a rooftop restaurant, Eataly Silicon Valley offers Italian food lovers the chance to shop, browse specialties, and enjoy wine, pizza, and ice cream all in one place. . The store marks the international food chain’s first location in Northern California.
A store with over 10,000 products can be overwhelming, so we enlisted the help of Viola Buitoni, an Italian cooking expert who teaches cooking classes in San Francisco and Italy. She will publish a cookbook called “Italy by Ingredient” next year and is the food expert advisor to the Italian consulate in San Francisco. We recently explored Eataly as part of a media tour ahead of the store’s official opening on June 16th.
From dried pasta to fresh fish, here’s Buitoni’s guide to Eataly’s must-haves:
Pope’s salt: According to Buitoni, naming a food after a religious service means the item is “very tasty and a bit (a little) secret.” In Italy, religious leaders historically received the best products, usually for free.
Pope’s Salt has less of the bitter mineral flavor that defines many other salts since it comes from the Adriatic Sea. Buitoni uses it to season already brackish fish and earthy root vegetables.
Pizza: Eataly’s Neapolitan pizza is made in partnership with Neapolitan chain Rossopomodoro, and the buffalo mozzarella is imported from Italy because the store was unable to recreate it locally (fresh mozzarella is made in-store from of cow’s milk.)
Buitoni likes the mozzarella that tops Eataly’s pizzas and says cheese should be judged by its milk. It shouldn’t squeak when bitten into it either.
Umbrian lentils: Perhaps Buitoni’s favorite item in the entire store, these lenses come from his home region of Umbria, Italy. She says they stay whole, cook in 20 minutes, and don’t need to be soaked.
Buitoni recommends sautéing the intensely flavored lentils with pancetta, bay leaf, tomato paste and flavorings such as celery, carrot, onions or garlic. She then deglazes the pan with red wine and slowly braises the lentils in a little water.
Dry pasta: Buitoni carefully watches each box of pasta for streaks and imperfections. She points to the rough edges and streaks of white and yellow in pasta made by Campofilone as an example of what she is looking for. These details show the use of real eggs and that the pasta has not been overworked. Provenance is also important and many of Eataly’s selections come from Gragnano, a territory known for its dry pasta.
A surprising note from Buitoni: pasta makers love American wheat from Manitoba, which has a high protein content that creates strong gluten development. She says that in general, pasta made only with Italian grains has a more intense flavor, but the lack of high-protein flour can affect the texture. Finally, she recommends looking for canned rather than bagged pasta, especially when buying flimsy forms.
Tangerine: While Buitoni finds most American sodas too sweet, this sparkling citrus drink is his go-to for a refreshing summer drink.
All kinds of tomatoes: Buitoni points out that even among the famous San Marzano tomatoes, some growers create better products than others. She highlights the Gustarosso brand supported by the cooperative for its long-standing relationships with farmers.
She also loves the triple-concentrated tomato paste, which provides “unmatched” depth of flavor and is hard to find here in the US. She particularly recommends it to vegetarians looking to add richness to their dishes.
At the end of the tomato aisle, Buitoni points to water-packed datterino tomatoes. She says companies packing pureed tomatoes could be using substandard tomatoes for the surrounding puree. These little tomatoes cook quickly over high heat with oil and garlic or can be mashed raw and smeared on bread.
Scorpionfish/rockfish and monkfish: Both of these fish can be found in the Mediterranean, and Buitoni finds them delectable in aquapazza, poached in tomatoes and water with black olives, garlic and basil. She also roasts them with potatoes and zucchini.
Orecchiette di grano arso: Made from “burnt wheat”, this pasta comes from Puglia and signifies the ingenuity of commoners and sharecroppers. Burning the fields was part of the agricultural cycle of the region and the inhabitants collected the remains of wheat. As economic conditions improved, grano arso became associated with poverty and began to disappear as a culinary tradition. About 10 to 15 years ago, the locals started picking up the tradition of grano arso and started producing this ashy-tasting pasta that complements the wild herbs and bitter vegetables common in Puglia.
Balsamic vinegar: Buitoni says to look for both the word “traditional” and the exclusive round bottles that mark the highest qualities of balsamic vinegar. Extravecchio vinegar from Modena is aged for at least 25 years and sells for $199 a bottle at Eataly. Buitoni compares these vinegars and their slightly younger relatives to dark honey and says they are the only ones worth paying a really high price. Cheaper alternatives are suitable for cooking and making heated sauces.
Hazelnuts from Piedmont: Buitoni appreciates these hazelnuts as snacks, in baking, on yogurt and in salads and sauces. They are said to have a richer flavor than most commercially produced hazelnuts.
Ice : Eataly Silicon Valley’s gelato section sets itself apart from counters in other megastore locations thanks to a partnership with third-generation gelato chef Patrizia Pasqualetti. A San Francisco resident and former ice cream maker at the city’s GIO Gelati, Pasqualetti went freelance and continued the family tradition of creating seasonal sweets by opening boutiques in Yountville and Malibu.
Marvis toothpaste: The end of a good day’s eating should end with good hygiene, and Marvis toothpaste is a staple in Buitoni’s suitcase whenever she returns from Italy. The brand’s traditional flavors include ginger, cinnamon and Amarelli licorice.
Eataly Silicon Valley, Westfield Valley Fair, 2855 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose; 650-456-9200, eataly.com. Instagram: @eatalysiliconvalley.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication to Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see, and do in Silicon Valley.