FOR cognoscenti, the height of Italian taste these days is not Prada or Maserati, but a food market called Eataly. Fruit and vegetables are piled artfully in barrows and crates. Cornucopias of pastas and pestos and peperoncini lie on shelves. Groups of little tables tempt shoppers to stop and sample the salamis, or some of the eye-wateringly expensive truffles for which its founder's home town of Alba, in Piedmont, is famous.
Oscar Farinetti set up the first Eataly in 2007, in an old vermouth warehouse in the Lingotto district of Turin. His 21st is due to open on December 2nd in Chicago. When Eataly came to Manhattan in 2010, the media were still reporting queues around the block two weeks later. Perhaps one of Mr Farinetti's American partners-Mario Batali, a well-known New York chef-had something to do with that. But in Tokyo too, after a slow start, people have taken Eataly to their hearts and wallets.
Mr Farinetti is a serial entrepreneur who had the good sense to sell his previous electrical-retailing business before the bottom fell out of it, and switch to a more promising sector. But he is also a fully paid-up member of the Slow Food (as opposed to fast food) movement founded by Carlo Petrini, his friend and fellow Piedmontese. Under Mr Petrini's guidance Eataly stocks the produce of several small firms, such as Gragnano durum-wheat pasta, wines from Piedmont and the Veneto and oil from western Liguria. Information cards tell shoppers who produced what and how. The idea, says Mr Farinetti, is not just selling food but "increasing the percentage of people who eat with awareness, choosing high-quality products and paying special attention to the source and processing of raw materials."
It works. Turnover this year is likely to be €300m ($407m), up by 30% from 2012, thanks to the opening of new shops. More are planned by 2017, across America and in London and Paris. Sales have risen in existing stores, too, by 4%-plus in Italy, 5% in New York and 10% in Japan. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation are almost 20% of revenue in New York and 15% in Turin.
Eataly provides its customers with gorgeous surroundings-less combative than at Harrods in London, less oppressively wholesome than at Whole Foods Markets, an American chain-in which they might imagine Gianmaria and Francesca weeding the tomato plants or treading the grapes. Mr Farinetti is selling them a seductive image of Italy itself.