Italy has more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other country in the world, and its art and cultural riches have drawn visitors for centuries.
It also prides itself on being a culinary mecca, where preparing, cooking and serving meals is a fine, even sacred, art. And now that the country is in the deepest and most protracted recession since World War II, why not cash in on its reputation as a paradise for visiting gourmets and gourmands?
In late February, Oscar Farinetti, who founded the Eataly chain of food emporiums, announced a new plan to help rescue economy: “Fico Eataly World,” a theme park devoted entirely to food and wine.
The project is a joint venture between Eataly and the municipality of Bologna, which is providing 86,000 square feet of land with warehouses to be transformed into food labs, grocery stores and, of course, restaurants. The price tag for the park is estimated at $55 million.
Eataly, which has over two dozen branches around the world, was founded in Turin in 2007 by Farinetti, who is CEO and owns a 60 percent share. The other 40 percent is owned by cooperatives of the COOP group of supermarkets.
The cooperatives have their roots in the Communist Party that was powerful in the Emilia-Romagna region that surrounds Bologna in the post-war period. The founder of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini, is also left-leaning, and another example of the ties between the left and the contemporary gastronomy movement.
The location for the Eataly theme park could not be more appropriate. Italy has many very different cuisines, but Bologna and Emilia-Romagna are widely, if grudgingly, recognized as the gastronomic capital of Italy.
The region is the home of Parmesan cheese, prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar, tortellini and lasagna, among many other delicacies. Since the Middle Ages, the city was known as Bologna La Grassa, Bologna the fat – as in, affluent and epicurean.
Today, Bologna is also home to the world’s only University of Gelato, as I reported in 2013.
The foreign media has referred to the planned food theme park as a “Disneyland of Food.”
But when I mentioned the “Disneyland for foodies” to people shopping at two well-known Roman outdoor markets, everyone grimaced in disgust.
“Sounds like something for tourists,” Simona Vitali, a middle-aged woman shopping for groceries in Piazza San Cosimato, told me. “We Italians have no need for such a theme park.”
Farinetti told the online English language service ANSA he hopes the park will draw annually 10 million visitors who will “play with this magical thing, Italian food.”
Eataly World is scheduled to open Nov. 1, 2015.