When it comes to food and theme parks, you usually think of cotton candy, hot dogs and bright yellow nachos. But then, you’re not thinking about Fico Eataly World.
Having already been deemed the “Disneyland of Food,” Fico Eataly World is a food-focused theme park that’s about to take over Bologna, Italy. Yet another project by the Eataly empire, who already has locations in 26 places around the world, including Rome, New York and Chicago, the food theme park will span 80,000 square meters (about 20 acres). It will include restaurants, grocery stores, food labs and an aquarium.
This doesn’t really sound like our normal vision of food in Italy, now does it?
The project is a joint venture between Eataly and the municipality of Bologna, who of course is touting the economic benefits that the theme park will bring. In a time when the Italian economy is stagnant — its gross domestic product was up 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2013, the first increase in 10 quarters, according to the Wall Street Journal — it’s a way to kick-start a tourism industry, focusing on one of the best things Italy has to offer: its food.
But is a Disneyland version of food what tourists to Italy are looking for? There’s no denying that Italian food culture is a draw to travelers, and tourists bring in a hefty chunk of money for the Italian economy, to the tune of $32.1 billion in 2012. This makes it the fifth-most-popular tourist destination in the world. While we can’t give Italian food all the credit, local cuisine and culture is certainly a staple of many tourist to do lists.
What are people after when they travel to Italy? Think of authentic Italian food and what comes to mind? Images appear of long lunches in vineyards, artisan food makers, a family owned olive oil operation that has been functioning for generations. Italy attracts visitors because it’s the opposite of so many other food cultures: it’s intentional and it’s rooted in history and tradition. When you think of Italy, you don’t think of Domino’s. You think of an artisan baker, kneading his dough, letting it rise for hours and baking a pizza in an old oven. In Italy, food is a way of life. A place where time is taken to seek out ingredients, and time is taken to eat. After all, the Slow Food movement was founded here.
This new theme park therefore raises the question: in a culture that is so revered for its food, will such a large-scale venture help focus on authentic, artisan products, or will it run the risk of becoming an industrialized and water-downed version of an eating culture that once was? It certainly won’t be a menu of nona’s fresh homemade pasta, as I am pretty sure that no theme park will ever be a model for slow living. It could, however, be a way to really highlight all the fresh and local food that Italy does have all throughout the country, and get visitors thinking about eating in a different way.
In an industrialized world where more and more small-scale operations are pushed out in favor of the large ones, and fast food is overtaking traditional, some might say that this is the only way to preserve local food culture. That without large-scale operations like this, artisan producers will cease to exist, because they need support of the “big guy.” But there’s no denying that a theme-park approach to local food is going to have a severe effect on the exact food it is aiming to promote. Going to Eataly will never be the same as going to a market.
Hopefully the focus of the theme park will be authentic enough that it does in fact promote real food. Maybe the cuisine will in fact be the antithesis of standard theme park food, in which fact we can all be happy that real food is being offered to the masses. Still, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. The project has already raised €85 million and hopes for another €400 million; with that much money on the table you can be sure that big business is involved and when there is big business there are big interests. Let’s just hope that those big interests keep real Italian food culture in mind.
Photo Credit: Oliver Townend