Over a year ago, I heard whispers that two food and wine icons–Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich–were planning to open their second U.S. outpost of the all-Italian mecca, Eataly, here in Chicago. I was intrigued. I’m a pretty big fan of both of these guys, who manage to gracefully run a vast culinary empire including restaurants, wineries, books and product lines. In early December, Eataly Chicago was born.
Last week, mecca called. Mr. Wagner and I abandoned our pseudo-gluten-free diets for the day, and giddily skipped through the revolving doors of Eataly Chicago like the starry-eyed hedonists we are. I’m sure we looked like a pair of seven-year-olds visiting Disney for the first time, but hey, so did everyone else. “Look, look,” I pointed, “a Nutella bar, next to a gelato bar, next to an espresso bar!” “Next to a panini bar,” whispered an awe-stuck Mr. Wagner, “this is a good place.”
That it is. In addition to the seductive aforementioned food court of sorts on the first floor of the 18K square foot space, there’s a museum-like gallery of every cool cooking tool you’ve ever seen–as well as many you have not. Up the already well-worn stairs, the second level features a handful of open restaurants and bars, each with a specialty like pizza, fish, or (god help me) mozzarella. There’s a meat counter with pornographic cuts of veal and cowboy rib eyes, a wine shop, a fishmonger, and dried pasta for sale in every shape imaginable. I also discovered a corner upstairs with the most thoughtfully curated collection of culinary books I’ve seen together in one place. I could have sat back there for days, happily downing interesting southern Italian red wines, munching on my prosciutto and Tallegio, absorbed in all things Italia. I might have, if I had not turned the corner and discovered the best surprise of the day…Hello, Wine books! A stack of them! What? Shut up. Wow. I now transcended to a new level of glee. I was somehow a part of this incredible place. We grabbed our third glass of wine and sat and watched as ALL of my little books disappeared into eager hands. I couldn’t help but approach the last buyer and let them know that I had written the book. They were as thrilled as I was. I signed it and took a photo with them and when we parted ways I felt like breaking into cheerleading moves right there.
I’m sure this all sounds dramatic, but that’s how it really was. We were truly impressed. Not just impressed, inspired. Joyful with the experience. And it’s not like we’re bumpkins who don’t get to the big city that often. We dine. A lot. We use fancy ingredients and drink really nice wine. I’ve been to Italy several times for the business of wine and as a just plain tourist and I think these guys got it as close to authentic as you can in the middle of downtown Chicago. Is it expensive? Yup. Crowded? justifiably so. But if you love, truly love food and wine, and Italian culture, you cannot deprive yourself a visit to this place. It’s not the motherland, but it’s far less expensive than two tickets on Air Italia, and you can get there and back in an afternoon.
Joe, Mario, you guys have done it again. Oh- and thanks for carrying the book! (Insert double back flip. Stick it. Spirit hands.)