What hype, you ask? Well, you must not live in Chicago. For weeks, we, here in the Windy City, have been inundated with all things Eataly. The second U.S. location of the famed Italian food megaplex just opened here on Monday, and no one has been more excited about it than me.
For those not familiar, Eataly is a high-end Italian food mall with a variety of restaurants, groceries, and retail items. Each location has a number of service counters featuring meat, salumi, cheese, seafood, bread, and more. The whole concept was dreamed up by entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti in 2000, and the first location opened in Torino, Italy in 2007. Currently there are 10 locations all over Italy, 13 in Japan, and one in Dubai, Turkey, New York, and now, Chicago. Mario Batali, Lidia and Joe Bastianich are also partners.
The Chicago location is nearly 65,000 square feet over two huge floors of all things related to Italian cuisine. That’s a lot to see, so I arrived shortly after they opened on their third day of business, and it was already bustling. I was immediately impressed by the layout. The coffee bar, pastry counter, and gelateria are all located near the entrance so those just passing by can stop in for something quick without hassle. Also in this area is the Nutella bar…yes, Nutella bar, featuring Nutella gelato, Nutella crepes, etc. The produce section is near the entrance as well, and while it was beautifully displayed, it was also way overpriced. While I didn’t expect Eataly to become my new go-to grocery store, I was surprised at the markup. No biggie, though, I wasn’t there for produce…I was most excited about the salumi, the cheese, and the fresh pasta. So, up to the second floor to find what I came for.
As the escalator reaches the second floor, the view of everything around you is unbelievable. On this level are eight restaurants, a variety of specialty counters, and many aisles of imported Italian items. While I spent most of the morning going aisle by aisle to see as much as I could, I would have liked to have spent all day there to really see everything. There is that much there. While I expected to see a lot of imported pasta, and tomatoes, and such, I was happy to see a lot of the basic, but hard to find items such as 00 flour, semolina, and imported spices. There were many items that I had never seen before, especially in the cookie and cracker aisles.
The smells around you are definitely a great part of the experience. This is especially true at the salumi and cheese counter. This was the first counter I visited and again, I was hit with some sticker-shock. 26 bucks for a pound of pancetta? I don’t think so. I can get it for half of that at my Italian grocery store. The one thing I really hoped to see here was some culatello. You know culatello, the thing I went on and on about here. There was culatello there…from Washington state…for 69 bucks a pound. No, thanks. One thing I will say about this counter and all the others I visited is that the service was great. Everyone I dealt with was very friendly and helpful.
The fresh pasta counter ended up being one of my favorites. While there wasn’t a huge variety of pasta available (no tortellini or tortelloni?), what they did have looked great. I love that the pasta is made right there in front of you. I asked what kind of flour was used and was pleased to hear that other than the agnolotti, all of the pasta was made with 100% semolina. I ended up buying a couple different kinds of the pasta and both were fantastic. I also thought the prices here were pretty reasonable.
The bread counter was great. Most of the bread is of the rustic, crusty variety. There are many flavors to choose from: raisin, fig, prosciutto and provolone, just to name a few. I loved that I was able to sample them all. There are a few varieties of focaccia to choose from as well. This was another counter with an amazing aroma.
There is also a meat counter, a fishmonger, and a vegetable butcher. The wine department is large. I plan to spend much more time there on my next visit. The olive oil department is fantastic, as well.
I did have lunch while I was there. I ate at Rossopomodoro, the pizza restaurant, which features authentic Napolitano-style pizza. This is the fork and knife kind of pizza with the bubbly crust and moist, soft middle. It was every bit as good as some of the pizza I’ve had in Italy. I started with an antipasti of fresh bufalo mozzarella that was really great, too. It tasted as if it was just made. All of this was perfect with the glass of rosé I had from the Bastianich wine collection. For the quality of the food, the prices were certainly reasonable.
Overall, I was very impressed with Eataly. It was definitely an experience, and I look forward to returning. I do have a few small gripes, such as the pastry counter not having any canolli or many traditional Italian cookies, but the surprises outnumber my gripes. I’ve called this post Part 1, because there is still more of Eataly that I have yet to experience. I have only tried one of the eight eating venues, and I’m sure there are nooks and crannies that I must have missed. I can’t wait to go back…and that’s saying something.