Walking into Eataly feels like entering a miniaturized version of an Italian piazza, the ginormous 50,000 square-foot emporium of artisanal food offering the best of everything that’s edible in Italy. Six weeks after opening just across the street from New York City’s Madison Square Park, crowds are still surging in to see, smell, taste, touch and buy. “We’re averaging about 8,000 people per day, above 12,000 some days. It’s way beyond what we expected. It’s like we went viral,” says owner Joe Bastianch.

Italian Entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, who opened the first Eataly in Turin, formed an Italian power-quartet to bring the concept to Manhattan, partnering with über-chef Mario Batali, Batali's restaurant partner and host of Masterchef on Fox, Joe Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich - chef, teacher, restaurateur, cooking show host, America’s doyenne of Italian cooking and Joe’s Mom.

In addition to fresh meat, produce and dry goods, there’s handmade pasta, wine, housewares, a Rizzoli bookstore, Neapolitan-trained pizzaioli (pizza-makers) pulling pies from golden-tiled, wood-burning, Italian-designed ovens, a pasticceria (pastry shop), a gelateria (ice cream shop), a panetteria (bakery), a paninoteca (sandwich shop), a macelleria (butcher shop) and a rosticceria (freshly roasted meat). Caffé Lavazza has authentic espresso, cappuccino and coffees and La Scuola, a cooking school, is there to teach you how to cook the ingredients you buy. Eataly radiates a snob-free atmosphere of culinary cultural integrity. It doesn’t matter what you know. It only matters that you love to eat.

The establishment is provenance-obsessed. Every ingredient and product has been chosen and vetted by people who dedicate their lives to Italian gastronomy. They know the history of every item from start-to-finish. From the most fragrant white truffles to the humblest can of tomatoes you’ll learn about an ingredient or product’s region, how it was grown, where it was grown, when it was harvested, how it was harvested, how it was made and what makes it different from the brand right next to it.

“Everything here is authentic,” says Lidia Bastianich. “Forty-five years ago I couldn’t make risotto in America because I couldn’t get Arborio rice in America. You can’t make a dish authentically without the right ingredients.” Risotto made with anything other than Arborio rice, by Lidia’s standards, is a nice rice dish. Just don’t call it “risotto.”

In addition to Arborio rice and plenty if it, Eataly sells all of the artisanal products that have put Italy on the world’s culinary map - salumi (prosciutto, salami, etc.), cheese, olive oil, coffee, chocolates, canned goods and dried pastas like Pasta di Gragnano, a pasta that’s been made near Naples for over 400 years. Fresh foods are sourced in America.

At Il Laboratorio della Mozzarella you can watch Puglia-trained cheese-makers pour curds in vats of salted, boiling water and coax them into gloriously smooth, blindingly white, impossible-to-resist cheeses. Sorry, you can’t buy them warm; they need to rest in cool water to retain their shape. All that food’s great, but the best thing about Eataly is that you can sip wine from a wineglass as you shop.

People see Italian food as part of an approachable lifestyle and culture that they like, says Joe Bastianich. “It represents a sensibility. And it’s healthy. It always tastes great. You could eat it every day of your life and never get tired. It is the perfect food experience.” Italy’s long-standing culinary traditions and regional diversity produce enough product and variety to sustain Eataly’s concept. The only other cuisine that comes close says Bastianich, is Chinese.

Each of Eataly’s seven independent restaurants is dedicated to a food group that corresponds to a food department: Le Verdure (vegetable); Il Manzo (meat); Il Pesce (fish); La Pasta; La Pizza; I Salumi e I Formaggi (cured meats and cheeses) and Il Crudo (raw bar). All are now open. A rooftop beer garden, La Birreria, will open in late-winter equipped with a copper-clad brewing system producing unfiltered, unpasteurized, naturally carbonated beers. La Scuola, the cooking school overseen by Lidia Bastianich has a reduced schedule until after the 2010 holiday season.

The essence of Italian food lies in its preparation, she says. “If I give you Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto di San Daniele, mozzarella di bufala, aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar), a piece of Grana Padano and some olive oil from Tuscany and put it on a plate, it’s nice and it’s fresh and you’re in Italy. Using Italian cooking techniques takes the food to another dimension.”

The cooking school isn’t about how to make, say, a real “piccata.” “Teaching just one dish doesn’t teach anything,” she says. The classes will reflect seasonal availability and underscore Italian cuisine’s emphasis on harmonizing starches, vegetables and proteins in every dish. Bastianich will delve into the “physiology of taste and sensation.” Take the concept of “al dente” which describes perfectly cooked pasta. Translated, it’s “to the tooth,” meaning that pasta should have a little resistance and be firm enough to need to be chewed. “Yes, al dente tastes better,” she says, “but it’s also nutritionally better. Al dente pasta has more to it so it goes into the system more slowly, so it’s healthier.” And after you cook, you will eat. “Italians eat sitting around a table with lots of people. We can’t eat if they’re not eating with other people,” she says.

Eataly is based on the concept that best food begins with the best ingredients. The best ingredients come from artisans who pride themselves on having made those foods for generations. Producing that kind food has always been central to Italian identity and largely defines its culture. Italian food is so popular, says Lidia, because it makes sense. “It makes you feel good. Your body speaks to you when you eat it. It’s kind to you. And it pleases all your senses - taste, smell, and sight. It’s good for you. Italian food reflects the rhythm of life.”