Visiting the Windy City Eataly
Chicago’s new giant Italian emporium has an impressive mix of imported and local products
Dizzying, isn't it?
PHOTO COURTESY OF EATALY CHICAGO
When we first visited Eataly in Turin, Italy, in 2008 and stood there transfixed by the depth of that amazing market, we could not have imagined that six years later we would have an Eataly of our own just 150 miles away.
Back then, we described the new, Slow Food-inspired market as “extraordinary” and “revolutionary,” combining elements of some of the best markets we’d visited with something completely new. Since then, Eataly has opened in New York City as well as Rome, Japan, Turkey, Dubai—twenty-six in all. And in December, Eataly opened in Chicago, 6,200 square feet over two stories just a couple of blocks off Michigan Avenue on East Ohio Street.
We were blown away by the original in Turin, the juxtaposition of bakery, fresh produce, Slow Food-endorsed products and a half-dozen or so small restaurants specializing in fish or meat or pasta. When we headed to the New York store a couple of years ago, we wondered if they could really pull it off, providing the hybrid ethic of local while paying homage to genuine Italian products. But they did. Now they’re in Chicago. And they did it again. (“They” is the team responsible for Eataly USA, restaurateurs Mario Batali and the mother-son team of Lidia and Joe Bastianich.)
And while there are obvious similarities in all the Eataly locations, there are important differences as well. The similarities include the general layout, the signage, the distinct eating areas where, maddeningly enough, you are limited to the menu of the individual area—no ordering pasta in the fish area—and the chaos. The chaos is a direct import from Italy. It wouldn’t be Eataly without the chaos. We thought speaking English might help in navigating the lines and crowds. It did not.
Chicago’s got a couple of new additions. There’s a Nutella “Bar” devoted to the many things one can do with the chocolate-y hazelnut spread like crepes and little toasts. And there’s a “Birreria” with “flights” of three beers paired with three small dishes. But what sets Chicago’s Eataly apart from New York’s, like New York’s from Turin’s, are the local products. And in this case, local means Wisconsin.
There was Sassy Cow milk, Sugar River yogurt and New Century eggs. There was cheese from Hook’s and Otter Creek and salamis from Bolzano. It all felt complementary. The mascarpone from Vermont was next to mascarpone from Lombardy. Miette from Missouri was next to ricotta from Abruzzo. Visitors ambled down the aisles, as many with a glass of wine as with a shopping cart or basket. The feel is different in Turin, probably because they don’t have to blend America’s food culture with their concept. Folks are actually shopping in Turin, buying their meat and produce for dinner, buying their daily loaf of bread and getting their raw milk in returnable bottles from the fresh milk machines.
Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon when we visited Eataly in Chicago, but the crowd was decidedly more a mix of tourists and visitors from the suburbs. There was a lot of eating going on. We finally decided on the fish restaurant and had an intensely flavored fish soup, a whole roasted branzino cooked with lemons and thyme served on potatoes and leeks, and a side of Swiss chard that was good and a side of glazed carrots that, while lovely to look at, was over-caramelized. The wines, a Vespa Bianco from Joe Bastianich’s vineyard in Friuli, and a Barolo, were wonderful.
Interestingly, the gelato missed the mark. While it was made with good ingredients, it lacked the depth of flavor of a really good gelato like Grom. But that’s a minor complaint. The place felt like Italy. One of the really well done and helpful signs put it best, to the effect of: “Our goal is that you leave feeling a little bit more Italian.” You will. We did.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.