magnify Click image to view more.

Calling All Food Tourists

Barbara Revsine - May 2014

Chicago—Credit the Bastianich/Batali brain trust with the creation of Eataly Chicago, the year’s hottest addition to the city’s food scene. A 63,000-square-foot tribute to all things edible and Italian, Eataly Chicago has been virtually SRO since it opened a few months ago. The first week crush was so overwhelming that the venue actually had to close for a day to restock the inventory.

Eataly Chicago is the second location in the United States and the 25th worldwide for the Turin-based concept founded by Slow Food advocate Oscar Farinetti in 2003. The American contingent—brothers Alex and Adam Saper, Lidia and Joseph Bastianich, and Mario Batali—joined the team for the launch of the New York City location in 2010.

The Chicago store, the company’s largest, is home to 23 food counters and restaurants, along with a grocery store, wine shop, cooking school, and bookstore.

Baffo Ristorante e Enoteca, the only one of Eataly’s restaurants to take advance reservations, has a separate entry on Grand Avenue. All of the other venues are located in the expansive, two-story space, designed by Andrew Koglin of OKW Architects and built by Bulley & Andrews, that fronts on Ohio Street.

Much of the first floor is devoted to concepts that attract a grab-and go clientele, everything from gelato, coffee, and panini to sweets, fresh produce, and chocolate. Upstairs, the line-up includes prepared foods, fresh fish and meat, on-site dining (both sit-down and stand-up), wine and beer, charcuterie, fresh pasta, pizza, and bread.

Like the meat restaurant La Carne on the second floor and the Nutella bar on the first, the wine bar and olive bar are unique to the Chicago location.

Menus in three of the four stand-alone restaurants focus on specific categories. Expect fish dishes at Il Pesce, meat at La Carne, and vegetables at La Verdure. Only at La Piazza does the menu offer more diversity. But even here, the repertoire is limited to four categories: fresh mozzarella, salumi and cheese, fried food, and crudo, supplemented with some daily specials. Diners interested in trying more than one concept can purchase dishes at various to-go counters and then troll for seating.

Baffo offers a full soup-to-sweets menu, plus some unusual dishes. Consider the warm lamb’s tongue salad, for instance, or the stuffed pork jowl with charred broccoli raab.

Breakfast is limited to Il Gran Bar Lavazza, where the limited menu focuses on various kinds of cornetti (Italy’s answer to France’s croissant) and a full range of specialty coffees. Il Gran Bar Lavazza opens at 8 a.m.; all of the other venues are open Mondays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.