It’s easy to get lost in the idea of FICO Eataly World, dubbed by many in the media as the “Disney World of food.” The park, located 30 minutes east of Bologna, Italy and open to the public today, is less of a Disney World and more of a industrial showroom and souped-up mall food court with contrasting surprises.
There’s a dairy plant and outdoor livestock stalls housing more than 200 cows, goats, and chickens. There’s a mini-plot of forest land that’s home to truffle dogs (aka some of the sweetest Labradors around) who show guests how they can sniff out a truffle within 60 seconds. There are department store-like fixtures selling state-of-the-art kitchenware. There’s an indoor sports area and kids playground. There’s an interactive hydroponics plant; 26 agrifarms growing everything from olive trees to grains; and 34 factories, including an Italian craft brewery and a flour and rice mill.
And of course, there’s food: mortadella panini featuring ham made on-site, speared chunks of Parmigiano cheese aged up to 72 months, aged balsamic vinegar from Modena and Reggio Emilia. Along the food court, stands offer obscure delicacies like Florentine lampredotto (cow stomach stuffed in a panino) and plates of fresh lasagna; pizzaiolo with thick Neapolitan accents toss pizza into foldable margherita for the road. Gelato machine manufacturer Carpigiani offers tastes of gelato; other diners line up at the oysters and bubbly bar in the seafood marketplace, which showcases catches from nearby Rimini, on the Adriatic Coast.
The Italian food theme park was first envisioned in 2012 by members of the Agri-Food Center of Bologna; in early 2014, they partnered with Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti to create FICO Eataly World. FICO — meaning “fig” and slang for “cool” in Italian — technically stands for Fabbrica Italiana Contadina (Italian Farming Factory), and the project is the culmination of efforts by more than 30 private investors, including major industrial producers, frozen food companies, milk producers, and government regulated agri-food consortiums.
Eataly World spans 10 hectares, or nearly 25 acres (don’t forget a map and a bike, available for rent — you’ll need both in order to navigate the site). In addition to all the food, drink, and spectacle, it houses six educational rides — called “carousels” — which chart the humans relationship with agriculture by theme: fire, earth, sea, animals, soil to bottle, and “the future of food.” (Functionally, they seem more like museum installations than actual carnival rides.) The end goal: For Eataly World to serve as a citadel of food and sustainability that illustrates how Italian products known the world-over are made.
Farinetti, a serial entrepreneur, first opened Eataly in 2007 as a small speciality store sourcing Italian delicacies from local producers. It now operates around the world, with locations from Japan to California. “People asked me, isn’t this project too big?” Farinetti said of FICO during a press conference last week. “To which I said, ‘It’s not big enough. In Italy, we have 1,000 varieties of apples.”
“If you look at Disney World, they experience 56 million visitors a year,” Farinetti continued. “We need to double the number of tourists in Italy using the theme of our heritage — and that [heritage] is food.”
Farinetti hopes the park will increase brand awareness to Eataly, increase tourism, and create jobs in Emilia-Romagna. Currently there are more than 700 park employees, and 3,000 jobs within the region are said to have been created as a result of Eataly’s presence. (The brand, however, has come under fire in Italy for its precarious work contracts; in 2014, strikes were held at Florence’s Eataly outpost, with workers demanding better job security.)
And not surprisingly, food politics are present elsewhere. Some are fueled by Italy’s unique adherence to food tradition. One of the first stands inside FICO is a mortadella producer, where guests can witness how mortadella ham, one of Bologna’s most iconic foods, is made. Increasingly, mortadella is being industrially made while artisan makers following IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) standards are in decline. (IGP stands for a product traditional to a particular geographic area, and its specific production techniques are protected by a government-run consortium; DOP, another designation, is slightly stricter, as the consortium follows every step in production and controls the confines of where the product is made.)
As a result of those government protections, Parmigiano-Reggiano cannot be produced onsite at FICO: The site falls 7 kilometers outside the geographic limit. Grana Padano, an aged cheese similar to Parmigiano but distinctly different in quality, can be made onsite only because the entire province of Bologna was recently approved by standard-bearers.
The Emilia-Romagna region is home to Italy’s highest number of IGP and DOP products — 44 to be precise — which explains why its historic capital of Bologna was selected as the home for a project aimed at promoting the diversity of Italian products. But some items appearing (or not appearing) on Eataly World’s shelves give pause, reflecting another element of politics. Why is Pecorino (ewe’s milk cheese, an element crucial to the food identity of many Italian regions, from Rome to Tuscany to Sardinia) missing from Eataly’s cheese collection? Why are frozen food purveyors serving lamb skewer arrosticini, a specialty from Abruzzo increasingly made by machines and less by hand? And why does Amadori, a major industrial meat producer who supplies to McDonald’s, have representation at a park that aims to proudly showcase Italian culinary artisanship?
Local tourism bureaus also argue that Farinetti’s goal to increase tourism might tax the infrastructure available in Bologna. Airbnb in the city is currently unregulated, and critics suggest its presence has undercut the hospitality sector and challenged locals’ and students’ ability to secure affordable housing. The other fear is that the call for an ambitious 6 million visitors annually, added to the already 12.9 percent visitor growth since 2016, means the city will be seen mainly as a food attraction, dismissing the other valuable cultural heritage attractions. Eataly plans to have public transport shuttles from the center of Bologna every half hour from the city’s main railway station. Trenitalia, the country’s public railway system, is offering incentives to visitors until January 15, with reduced train tickets for anyone visiting Bologna using high speed, intercity, or night trains.
While it is uncertain if FICO will last as long as one of the small bottles of aged balsamic vinegars, it’s worth a visit for a taste of one of the world’s most biodiverse food cultures. Italy may not be a perfect place, but it may be one of the happiest and healthiest destinations on earth for food lovers — an experience Eataly World hopes to house all under one giant roof.
Coral Sisk is a Florence-based food and drink writer and the creator of Curious Appetite Travel, a bespoke provider of culinary wine tours. She blogs at the Curious Appetite. Silvio Palladino is a photographer and food lover/enthusiast based in London.
Editor: Erin DeJesus