Back in 2010, I was paging through one of my many magazines (Saveur, I think) and stumbled across a concept that may very well have originated in an epicurean fever dream: a superstore, nay, a mall even, devoted solely to all things Italian food - rows upon rows of oils and wines; refrigerator cases filled with fresh pasta, cheeses, cured meats, fish, and pastries; coffee bars, beer bars, gelato bars; wood-fired ovens churning out Neapolitan-thin pizzas and roasted meats; anything and everything one could think of from the Motherland intended to tempt one's palate. This crazy idea, dubbed Eataly, was made reality by entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, who opened the first Eataly market in Turin, Italy, expanded throughout his home country, then went global to Japan and the USA, settling on New York City as the first stateside location, where he would partner with local restaurant magnates Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich for added street cred. It was the NYC Eataly that I had first read about and salivated over, even more so when I subsequently heard how successful the operation was and how large the crowds were. With its strong Italian heritage and rabid foodie contingent, Chicago seemed a logical choice for the country's second Eataly location, but no official announcement was forthcoming until we were comfortably settled in our new Florida home, at which time the B&B Boys revealed that a new Eataly was coming to downtown Chicago in the old ESPNZone space at Wabash and Ohio in River North. Stung that this all happened after we moved, I was nonetheless encouraged that I'd have a chance to visit the brand new megashop (which opened on December 2, 2013) while back in my hometown for Xmas, and this is exactly what I did on the Monday before the holiday while Mrs. Hackknife shopped on the Magnificent Mile and the progeny played at Grandma's house.
Armed with a gift card and a wool cap to warm my bare scalp, I made my way from the parking garage on Grand (only $10 if you buy $20 of Eataly merchandise!) to Eataly's front entrance at 43 E. Ohio. I had read about the lines down the block during the first week of operation (so much merchandise was sold that they actually had to close down for a full day of restocking), but was pleasantly surprised to find that I could walk right in. Not that it was empty, mind you - I had no illusions about getting a table at one of the 5 sit-down restaurants (all of them had a minimum 1-hour wait), but had done my homework to find out that if I went to one of the counters that make up what is called La Piazza (pattered after small snack bars that line central plazas in Italian towns, where patrons normally congregate at stand-up tables while eating and socializing), I could get served without the long wait. Fortunately, I found a single open stool wedged next to the server's station at the crudo bar and perused La Piazza's menu, which included fried items (Fritto), cured meats/cheeses (Salumi & Formaggi), freshly-made mozzarella, and raw seafood (Crudo). After a few head-spinning minutes, I first chose a plate of assorted radishes, drizzled in honey and then fried (greens and all).
These radishes were delicious (see photo above), especially the greens, which, when fried, tasted like a much better version of my kale chips, with a salt and crunch to rival anything Frito-Lay mass produces.
Since man cannot lived by fried vegetables alone, I also ordered a plus-size platter of the house's best cured meats and cheeses (see photo above), including some melt-in-your-mouth prosciuttos, speck, mortadella, and salami, soft ricotta, creamy taleggio, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, and gorgonzola. My waiter also brought over a good size hunk of warm bread with olive oil for dipping and a small plate of candied fruits and honey to accompany the cheese. On this little plate, the almond amaretto honey (middle of the 3) nearly made me leap out of my chair; sadly, I was told that there are no plans to bottle it for sale until later this year (mark my words, I will be first in line). I was a little concerned at first that I might not be able to finish all this chow (plus a Menabrea Ambrata beer to cleanse the tongue), but it turns out I had no problem doing so and didn't even hate myself afterwards.
Now that my belly was sufficiently full, I spent the next hour and a half simply wandering the aisles, marveling at the fine bounty around every corner. There was a beautiful fish counter selling (among other fare) whole branzino:
Nearby was another counter, this one specializing in many fresh, handmade pastas, including ravioli, bright yellow nests of angel hair, and, the ultimate luxury, white truffles by the pound:
Not far away from there was a dizzying array of cured meats and Italian cheeses for sale at the deli counter:
Over by the bakery and wood-fired pizza were shelves full of olive oils, balsamic vinegar, and spices. It was here that I found a little bottle of anchovy extract to bring home (sounds disgusting, but try a drizzle on pasta sometime for an instant flavor boost):
My basket began to fill up - panettone, a sweet Christmas bread filled with raisins and other dried fruits that's good at breakfast or any other time, an Italian lemon liqueur called limoncello (have yet to open it), a 6-pack of hard-to-find Dogfish Head Burton Baton Ale (Dogfish Head collaborates with Eataly on several beers), little chocolate bars for stocking stuffers, a bottle of Barbera (which, truth be told, wasn't particularly good). My gift card was long gone by the time I made it back downstairs, past the Nutella bar (and avoiding every urge in my body to buy a crepe filled with the tasty spread) and over to the sweets section.
Eataly Chicago actually has TWO gelato bars (because one just isn't appropriate), one serving the traditional variety and the other dishing up a higher-end version using milk from Alpine cows, who spend their days happily munching on mountain clover. It was the second of these where I purchased my medium-sized cup of fancy gelato, a rich combo of hazelnut and pistachio (no photo - sorry, my hands were full).
Last, but not least, since the missus would surely brain me if I didn't bring something to share back to our hotel, I made one final stop at the pastry stand, asking them to box up a limoncello-soaked sponge cake elegantly crowned with a raspberry and a sinfully-good blancmange (a creamy dessert of milk, gelatin, and almonds) dome flavored with coconut and passionfruit (you can see these in the photo above, 4th and 5th from the bottom, respectively).
Although my wallet was considerably lighter by the end of my visit, I at least now know where I want my ashes to be scattered when it's time to finally go to that great trattoria in the sky. Please join me in starting the letter writing campaign to bring Eataly to west-central Florida...