The MegaStore That Kickstarted a New Italian Renaissance
Restaurant, Inc. visits Chicago’s Eataly, the uber popular megastore described as food court, European open market, Whole-Foods-style supermarket and learning center bundled into one enormous culinary success for Mario Batali and Lida Bastianich. We set out to explore 63,000 square feet of authentic Italia that’s proving an irresistible draw to the city’s trendiest foodies.
The drawing that started it all, fittingly sketched out on a napkin in 2002 by Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti, Eataly’s founder and creator. In January 2007, he opened a 30,000-square-foot store in Torino, Italy with a mission “to make high quality Italian foods available to everyone, at fair prices and in an environment where people can shop, taste and learn.” It’s been fully realized at Eatalys around the world, with more to come: 30 stores opened in the last decade, including two in NY, the Chicago behemoth, and Toronto, Boston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Paris and London all on the docket in the next few years.
Chicago’s Eataly is the largest one in the U.S. and the only two-story location, with a grocery, housewares and quick service on the first floor and a range of restaurants (from super casual to fancy), and a marketplace with fresh meats, fish and cheeses on the second floor. The location opened in 2013 with an unprecedented 120,000 visitors in its first week; it has since receded to a more manageable 40,000 guests weekly.
Demos, classes and abundant tasting opportunities are a daily occurrence at Eataly, such as the chocolate baci (kisses) made with hazelnut and cocoa being sampled. Patrons are also frequently seen shopping with glass of wine in hand, another perk of the Eataly experience.
If you can’t find the right extra virgin olive oil at Eataly, it probably doesn’t exist. More than 100 different imported Italian EVOOs, as Rachael Ray would say, are on the shelves, separated by region – northern light and buttery, southern pungent and spicy, and central somewhere in between. The oils are among Eataly’s best-selling products, joining dry pasta from Gragnano, freshly made, creamy mozzarella (rightfully praised as ‘life-changing’) and crusty housemade bread.
Transparency is key to the business of eating, and at Eataly, there’s nothing hidden. Patrons can watch the pros prep bread, chop veggies, roll and cut pasta, pull fresh mozzarella cheese, brew beer and grind sausages. Every week, the Chicago team creates 1,200 pounds of fresh mozzarella, 2,500 hand-tossed pizzas, 5,000 loaves of handmade bread, and more. Producers’ stories are prominently displayed throughout the facility, giving props to locally sourced dairy and produce.
Restaurant row at Eataly, where 14,000 covers weekly are served at options spanning counter casual for coffees and gelatos to fancy white tablecloths. On the second floor, La Piazza is always bustling, modeled after an Italian city square, with four corners for wine bar, seafood and oysters, meat and cheeses and pizzas (90 seconds from oven to plate).
One of the country’s largest producers of pasta, Eataly churns out pounds of colorful, authentic and freshly made product each day. Restaurant portions are generous, but not overly so, adhering to the Italian philosophy of not overusing when cooking, or buying more than you can eat. For that reason, the pasta is made al dente, on the chewy side, to sate appetites more quickly.