By Isla Binnie
MILAN (Reuters) - Sundried tomatoes and seabass tartare tickled tastebuds in Milan on Tuesday as upmarket Italian food hall chain Eataly opened a flagship store, the latest step in its plan to expand and list its shares on the market.
Eataly, which began with the idea that there should be a place to buy, eat and study high-quality Italian food and wine, has 25 food emporiums in the United States, Turkey, Japan and Dubai.
The company, which plans to float shares in 2017, is taking advantage of investor appetite for Italian companies that make artisanal or luxury products. Milan's main stock market has seen four share sales in the past three years and all have been high-end consumer goods firms.
The 5,000 square-meter space, one of the chain's largest, is important for the company as Milan is Italy's "most metropolitan" city, where it previously had only one 250-square-metre store, founder Oscar Farinetti said at the event.
"From here we will branch out around the world, to Moscow, Sao Paolo, London, Paris, Los Angeles," Farinetti said.
Shoppers queued outside the four-storey converted theatre, where jars of pesto and pureed tomato lined the shelves and open-plan restaurants offered cuts of raw meat and fish.
Farinetti said the company sourced local goods from the Lombardy region surrounding Milan, in line with its stated aim to educate people about what they consume.
"We have celebrated the beauty of agriculture and food in Lombardy, which hardly anyone knows is Italy's most important region for agriculture," Farinetti said.
Farinetti expects the shop, which resounded with the music of a piano played on a balcony under a glass ceiling, to reach a turnover of 40 million euros ($55.7 million) a year.
"This is a flagship for the country," said 60 year-old retiree Rosella Assandri, eyeing the fish counter. "Tourists can come here and try new things and appreciate the best of Italy."
Products from tinned tuna to jars of pasta sauce made from hare meat had placards explaining the origins of their brands, highlighting the diverse nature of Italy's food industry.
"Behind this big operation is the work of thousands and thousands of small artisans, that face challenges like bureaucracy but still keep the image of Italy alive," said Carlo Petrini, founder of non-profit organization Slow Food, which promotes the idea of sourcing ingredients locally without harming the environment and treating small producers fairly.
Other institutions in Italy, struggling to emerge from its longest recession in seventy years, could learn from Eataly's example in promoting part of the national identity, art critic and former junior culture minister Vittorio Sgarbi told Reuters.
"How can we make the most of our cultural heritage? Look around you," Sgarbi said, gesturing towards a kitchen area where aproned chefs rolled dough into pasta shapes. "We could bring our artistic heritage to life in this way too."
(1 = 0.7180 Euros)
(editing by Louise Heavens)