Che FICO!

The headline means “cool.” It’s also sort of a pun, because we drove almost three hours the other day to something called FICO Eataly World. And “fico” in Italian means “fig.” It’s also an acronym for Italian Federation of Farmers. Hence, “Che FICO” means, more or less, “What a cool thing we saw the other day,” or “what a fig.” Whatever—take your pick.

FICO—nobody calls it Eataly World here in Italy—is probably the only theme park for foodies in the world. It’s gigantic, some 100,000 square meters (or, if you wish, 1,076,391 square feet), sprawling in a few directions. It might very well be the biggest food court you’ll ever see, because it’s basically a huge mall. Like, well, the Eataly extravanganzas that are spreading across the United States. I was a regular at the Financial District one in New York. Almost every day at about 3:30 or so, my web editor and I walked the block over to it to have a mid-afternoon shot of espresso. The coffee costs $2 there, which, for New York, is a bargain.

But those regular Eatalys don’t prepare you for the FICO version. First of all, it’s outside Bologna. Or, I should say, Italy’s New Jersey. Bologna’s outskirts are as flat as a board and the autostrada leading to Bologna from the Adriatic is monotonously straight. The only thing that keeps things lively is the constant terror of competing with gigantic tractor trailers on the right and the suicidal maniacs driving black Audis in the left lane. The road is lined with factories, office parks, Stalinesque apartment blocks and the occasional vineyard, of all things. So, think New Jersey Turnpike, but less smelly than its Chemical Coast stretch around exits 13 and 12.

Some roads lead to FICO.

To get to FICO, you get off the autostrada and go through a bunch of office parks and apartment complexes. And you can’t miss the huge McDonald’s. Finally, you arrive at what looks like a turnpike tollbooth. Collect the ticket, park and there you are, at the foodies’ Mecca.

At this point, I’ll answer the question: Why didn’t we just go to Bologna, gastronomical center of Italy? Because the parking’s easier here? Or, just because. I’d heard that FICO is a riot, and every now and then you have to leave your distaste for modern corporate experiences behind and see how a country’s corporate food industry wants to present itself to the world.

That said, it’s sensory overload. FICO has multiple stands, interactive spaces, classrooms, ride, and restaurants that represent Italy’s regions, which, even in 2019 are astoundingly distinct from one another. When you’re in the normal, non-FICO Italy, even the mineral water on a restaurant table changes from region to region. Here, the change happens in a few steps, and you start to wonder, Emilian? Sicilian? Where does nduja come from—Puglia? Calabria? You can sign up, too, for hands-on classes on things like bread making and how to make tortellini.

Dee-luxe Parmigiano wheels

The place is also filled with inspirational signs touting sustainability and humane animal practices. Not for nothing, Italy’s main export success these days seems to be its food culture, and if its small-producer ethos and practices influence the rest of the world, I’m all for it.

Apparently a lot of FICO’s Bolognese neighbors aren’t thrilled about its presence. Critics take aim at its international food court type presentation, and how it feels like an airport terminal. I’ll concede the point. It is nicer to stumble upon local fare at its origin, and do it serendipitously. In the Guardian article I linked to above, there’s a quote from a local saying that FICO presents Italian food in an un-Italian way. Perhaps, in terms of the size and corporate-ness of the place.

The original Fiat Nuova 500 (from 1957) is a great marketing tool–here, for Italian beer.

But it’s very Italian in another way—its sociability. Stop at one of the stands or restaurants, and talk to the people working there. You’ll find none of the bored teenager working minimum wage grunting and mumbled replies. Most people at FICO seem incredibly happy to engage you and talk about their specialties and their regions and cities. And it’s not canned, and totally unlike an unnerving lunch once in the Wall Street area at an American Grille, where the server obviously spoke from a script: “Is everything prepared to your satisfaction?”

After walking around trying to take it all in, including a visit to the farm animals, we went looking for lunch. At that point, we wanted sanctuary, an hour of calm, and we found it. If you find yourself there at lunchtime, go straight to Fattoria delle Torri. The original is in Modica, Sicily, in a beautiful site. The FICO version may be less scenic, but the overall feel is cosseting. And most important, its stylish Sicilian food felt like home.

Take me home….
…to tuna and caponata that’s a bit more upscale than mom’s.

Would I go back? Maybe, if I were in the area. But Bologna itself would be the main attraction and I’d rather walk around in a place that’s grown organically over the centuries. That said, it was worth taking a warm springlike day off. With someone else’s credit card, I could do serious damage, since the food for sale is all pretty high end. Unlike some other visitors who’ve lived to write about it, I wouldn’t spend days there. But if you’re around and you have the time, go for it. Who knows? You might learn how to make proper tagliatelle.

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