By Emily Paster
Eataly Chicago, the latest colonial outpost of Chef Mario Batali's culinary empire, opened just two months ago to record-breaking crowds. How record-breaking? After more than 120,000 visitors during the first week, Eataly Chicago had to close for a day just to restock. In other words, Chicago broke Eataly. Take that, New York!
I can't stand crowds and the weather has been horrific, so despite my well-documented love of Eataly, I decided to wait until things had calmed down before venturing to my city's version of the Italian-themed mega-store. This week, I found myself just a few blocks away from Eataly Chicago's Streeterville location following a meeting and given that the temperature was downright hospitable, I giddily walked over for my first visit.
I was not at Eataly for a meal, so my experience was limited to the market. I am also ostensibly on a diet to lose some of the extra pounds caused by my knee-jerk reaction to all the snow we've had, i.e., baking. So I didn't even indulge in the famous Nutella bar. I am anxious to return soon, however, to try one of the many dining options, which ranges from take-out panini, gelato and pastries to snacking at bar tables to sitting down at several different casual restaurants grouped by type of food and even to white-tablecloth dining.
Eataly Chicago is larger than the New York store, and one thing that I noticed was that the market areas are more spread out. Produce, sweets and spreads are on the first floor, but wine, cheese and charcuterie, fish, meat, dry goods, spices and canned goods are on the second floor. And the items on the second floor are very spread out because the sections are dotted around the various restaurants. I am usually energized by browsing through fabulous markets, but at Eataly, I found myself getting a little fatigued as I wandered in circles on the second floor. The offerings are amazing – don't get me wrong. I just wish it were a little more compact.
My other complaint is that the produce section seems very small – I seem to remember more selection at the New York Eataly. But even though it's small, the produce still impresses with a well-curated selection of typical and hard-to-find produce. I was excited to spy pomelos, blood oranges and kumquats in the citrus section. Nearby I noticed some quince on offer. And if you want to know where to find salsify, the funny little root that periodically shows up on restaurant menus, Eataly is the place.
Upstairs, the selection of imported Italian pantry items is anything but small. The aisles upon aisles of flours, spices, vinegars, olive oils, pastas, and sauces is overwhelming. I randomly grabbed some Italian "0″ and "00″ flours for pasta-making and baking respectively and had fun selecting some dried pasta shapes that you don't see in the typical grocery store. The Italians are ahead of us on gluten-free baking and this fact was reflected in Eataly Chicago's selection of gluten-free flours. I hope that some of my GF friends are excited about it.
My diet kept me away from the cheese counter, but I did stop by the fresh pasta case to pick up some pear and Pecorino ravioli for that night's dinner. Sauteed in a little butter and topped with chopped parsley and toasted walnuts, the ravioli was as delicious as it sounds and 2/3 of a pound was easily enough for dinner for two along with a vegetable side dish.
While many of the items for sale at Eataly are expensive, not all are prohibitively so. My ravioli only cost $8 and as a dinner for two, that's not bad. The produce seems quite dear and you could easily blow your paycheck on fancy wine or olive oil. But at the same time, if you are looking for a small indulgence, you could treat yourself to some special chocolate or artisan bread for a few dollars.
Will I go back to Eataly Chicago? Oh, there's no doubt. I definitely want to eat at some (all?) of the restaurants. And I can see myself stopping in when I'm in the neighborhood to pick up a unique jar of jam or some unusual imported pasta. I would also consider bringing out-of-town guests as a fun excursion — not guests from New York obviously, but guests from some place that doesn't have its own Eataly. In short, I'm glad our Eataly has finally arrived. Now I just need to lose six pounds and then I can have a Nutella crepe.