Eataly Chicago is huge, baffling, intimidating


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CHICAGO -- Now that Eataly Chicago has been operating for a couple of weeks, now that lines form daily in front of each of its 23 eateries, it's about time we recognize that Eataly Chicago, at its overstuffed heart, is also a market.

A 63,000-square-foot wonderland, importing whole octopus from Spain, making mozzarella twice an hour. But fundamentally, still a market. Which sells, you know, milk, eggs. Also, dried black-eyed fagioli and bomb-shelter-size tins of Italian sardines. Ask Mario Batali -- or any of the emporium's investors -- what the ultimate goal of Eataly is, and they respond in unison: to encourage the home cook to assemble an Italian meal at home.

Albeit one that includes whole branzino fish, sliced open and stuffed with lemon and rosemary sprigs.

Eataly Chicago is the latest venture in this Italian global adventure. There are now 25 Eataly market places in the world: Ten are in Italy: Turin Lingotto, Turin Lagrange, Pinerolo, Asti, Monticello, Milan, Genoa, Bologna, Rome and Bari; 13 in Japan; one is in Dubai; one in Turkey; one in New York City (200 Fifth Avenue, in the Flatiron neighborhood) and now in Chicago.

Some thoughts:

Your first stop at Eataly Chicago, and the loveliest, should be La Pasta Fresca, the fresh pasta station, which like many of the best corners of Eataly, already seems permanently dusted in flour. Behind the counter, trained pastaioli -- pasta-makers from Chicago, working with members of Italy's Michelis pasta dynasty -- churn out about 15 varieties a day. Inside the case, fresh squid-ink tagliatelle, lasagna sheets. Many more of the fresh pastas are stuffed (think ricotta and spinach-stuffed pansotti).

As for dry pasta, there are more aisles of the stuff than most neighborhood bodegas have, well, aisles: bags of candle-long candele, orecchiette shells held in place by cardboard packaging that resembles avant-garde teddy bears. (Even if you don't have a clue what you're buying, the tasteful, pseudo-vintage packaging will reassure you.)

On the second day I visited Eataly, I saw a woman faint in the wine aisle, somewhere between the dessert wines and Northern reds. I don't know the reason for the fainting, but fainting is understandable here: Shopping earnestly at Eataly means steering past lines of restaurant-goers, the gape-eyed who tote yoga mats and glasses of wine, bros in pinstripes holding forth on Parmigiano-Reggiano -- of which, incidentally, I counted at least three kinds. When I began looking for imported tomatoes, I stopped counting at 25 varieties of red sauce and/or tomato options. Here is a market that could use mental-health wellness stations -- aka chairs for exhausted shoppers.

A gripe. There are six rows of olive oils. Most I have never tasted. I could not tell you the difference between what is in each bottle by looking at the bottle. Eataly retains a staff olive oil expert, I'm told, but the other day I was on my own. There are no samples of the $4 stuff or the $25.80 extra-virgin Frantoio Muraglia. Five feet away, there is a wall of Italian beauty products -- these you can sample. Olive oils, no.

The day I visited, I met Patrick and Peter Molinari, cousins from New York who spent a week in Chicago recently getting the mozzarella-makers and fish counter (respectively) up to speed. Patrick showed me the Eataly Shuffle, a sideways step that avoids crowds and moves steppers forward. Smart: Behind him sat thick, enticing plastic containers of just-made mozzarella, in several varieties, each silky ball plopped in a cloud of milk-water. As for Peter, his fish stand offers about 25 different fish and shellfish, many drawn from New England, some (white fish, walleye) pulled from the Great Lakes, some insanely priced ($35 a pound for golf ball-size Cape Cod scallops), others more reasonable ($12 a pound for Nantucket scallops, still in the shell). The lobster (roughly $12 a pound, shipped in from Maine) is reasonable too, but the precooked lobster (broken down and precooked by Eataly itself), for about $27 a half-pound, begs you to shell your own.

Another whine. OK, let's assume I have not taken time to understand Italian culture before I stepped foot in Eataly. Let's assume I know just a little. Thoughtful wall displays -- which introduce food purveyors, explain the differences between Italian risottos, and so forth -- are helpful, but, because so many of the grocery items are imported from Italy, many of the labels are in Italian. Educated guessing is required. A $45 bag of porcini is self-evident. But polpa di pomodoro (crushed tomato) versus those other tomatoes?

In the unlikely event of an Eataly led civil war, if each of the different food counters here were to declare sovereignty, I pledge allegiance now to the gargantuan, formidable Salumi & Formaggi stand (cured meats and cheeses), which sprawls, towers, intimidates. The counter itself offers more than 400 cheeses, some regional, some Vermont, many from much farther. Meanwhile, ringing the counter, in refrigerated cases, are select cuts of biggies: hard chunks of pecorino Romano, tubs of fresh ricotta, many others in small plastic containers (which removes some of the pretension when the price creeps up). One small annoyance: While you could get the cheese counter to cut you a piece, there is little variety in the size of the ready-to-go pieces, which inevitably sticks the shopper who is in a hurry with a pricier hunk.

Cold cuts: Same deal. The Salumi & Formaggi counter offers more selection than the entirety of Taylor Street; but for frantic shoppers, refrigerated cases hold sleeves of just-sliced, grab-and-go prosciutto, mortadella and so forth. Purveyors are Italian-market mainstays: Parma, Salumeria Biellese. But then there are also curious tubes of prosciutto spread from Iowa's La Quercia, and Delaware Fireball Salame from, of course, Indianapolis. As for butchers: They're just beyond the salumi, offering mostly Midwestern products (osso buco from Ohio, lamb from South Dakota). And beyond the butcher, refrigerated packages of whole duck, and something called the Pat LaFrieda Hot Dog from New Jersey. You are playing a dangerous game, Eataly.

Skip the books, the silly kitchen gadgets, the shelves of Batali-certified cookware. That's not why you're here. Focus.

Greeting you at the front door is a relatively slender, modest produce section. The department manager told me it receives shipments twice a day, and indeed nothing here looks remotely anemic. Selection and value are mostly Whole Foods-esque. Except, oddly, in places, where both organic and standard-grown versions of the same item are identically priced. (Good deal while that lasts, I suppose.)

Before you leave, a loaf of bread and some booze, right? It's hard to go wrong with the fresh-baked bread; stick with the featherweight brioche and the small crusty loaves spotted with fresh figs. Beer, however, is limited: Mostly from Dogfish Head and Italian microbrewery Baladin (with a few local brewers like Revolution and Half Acre). Wines, of course, are Italian, and the selection large, the price range generous.

But after a day at Eataly, I required stronger. I needed grappa, that grapey Italian-brandy mainstay. And selection was ... tiny. Just a few choices. Seven million balsamic vinegars, yet so little grappa. Eataly as a shopping experience may be an overstuffed marvel, but blind spots do exist.

Eataly Chicago is at 43 E. Ohio St., Downtown Chicago; 1-312-521-8700. www.eataly.com/eataly-chicago.


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