So much has already been written about Eataly, the Italian food emporium helmed by such culinary forces as Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Lidia Bastianich, as well as Eataly founder and creator Oscar Farinetti. However, when something this big, grand, and ambitious makes its way into Chicago, the second Eataly location in the U.S., and twenty-sixth in the world, I would be doing this blog a disservice by not experiencing it and sharing it with my loyal readers.
Upon entering Eataly, located in the former ESPN Zone space in River North, one is either overwhelmed or extremely excited by the open, bi-level space. I, not surprisingly, fell into the latter category and immediately felt at home. The space is bright, white, and elaborate. The first floor is a hybrid of a supermarket, with fresh, seasonal produce, a Bloomingdale’s home store, selling Alessi gadgets, and a food court, with a Nutella bar, panini counter, gelateria, and coffee shop. If you are looking for a quick trip in and out, and just want to grab a quick cappuccino, sandwich, or pastry to go, then you are in the right spot. However, if you have more time and want to explore, my recommendation is to immediately make your way up the central escalator and into La Piazza.
Take a moment and take it in. Then, grab a glass of Italian wine from the wine counter, Vino Libero, and walk around the floor, checking out all of the offerings. The second floor is a blend of open-air restaurants, counters, and standing tables, as well as the fresh pasta, cheese, seafood, and meat purveyors. Diners looking to enjoy lunch or dinner on the premises can choose between five different sit-down restaurants, each specializing in something different – meat at La Carne, vegetables at Le Verdure, beer and bar food at Birreria, seafood at Il Pesce, and pizza and pasta at La Pizza & La Pasta. At the latter, the cacio e pepe pasta was cooked al dente and speckled with loads of pepper, just like one would find in Italy. The Neapolitan-style pizza, made from fresh dough allowed to rise over twenty-four hours, and topped with house made mozzarella cheese, which was quickly cooked in one of two gold tiled pizza ovens, was light and good, but lacked a little flavor.
La Piazza is a standing restaurant in the middle of the second floor. Here, one can order from La Mozzarella (cheeses), Il Crudo (fresh seafood), Salumi & Formaggi (meats and cheeses), and Il Frito (fried items). The house made mozzarella and ricotta cheeses were incredibly fresh and fluffy; the crudo of the day – grouper, red snapper and hamachi on our visit – and oysters, especially the kumamoto, were so smooth and refreshing that we had to order a dozen more; and the arancini were warm and melty fried goodness.
Service at the wine counter and Il Crudo was patient, friendly, and knowledgeable. However, at La Pizza & La Pasta restaurant, it was rushed and flat. Drink orders were being taken before we even fully sat down and recommendations were thrown out so quickly none of us could follow. At La Pasticceria, chocolate truffles and tiramisu were thrown together dismissively into one small clear plastic bag. Overall, with the exception of that at Il Crudo, service did not live up to the ambiance that Eataly offers.
Eataly can be likened to an Italian Whole Foods, where one can shop, eat, and drink. One could also believe, perhaps rightly so, that it is attempting to be all things to all people. However, if you walk into Eataly with an open mind, an empty stomach, or, better yet, a game plan, you can live La Dolce Vita and enjoy a slice of Italian heaven right in the middle of River North.