Rapini and parm bruschetta from Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant, Le Verdure
The numbers alone are staggering: $70 million invested in a 63,000 square foot space (13k larger than New York’s, by the way), and a labyrinth of 10 different eating opportunities/restaurants. Add to that a Lavazza coffee bar, a butcher, a fishmonger, a dry goods section, some fresh produce, a wine shop, a brewery, a gelato bar with two different styles of creamy sweetness and a dizzying array of imported jams, chocolates and cheeses, and the Chicago version of Eataly boggles the mind as much as it tempts your stomach. 70% of what they sell, they actually make here, including the bread, the pasta and the mozzarella; just the second American outpost of this sprawling international business, Team Batali-Bastianich also made sure this heartland version would have a few things its older sibling in New York City did not.
The Nutella Bar, with its made-to-order crepes, cookies and hazelnut-laced treats is sandwiched between the gelato section and the coffee bar on the first floor, which is going to make a great late-night stop for anyone in River North who doesn’t feel like getting that molten chocolate cake at Steakhouse X. Architects did a nice job of knocking dozens of windows into the former ESPN Zone space, flooding it with daylight, and allowing views of the nearby Masonic Temple, er, Bloomingdale’s Home Store; but the real action is upstairs, on the 2nd floor.
On Wednesday, I stopped in for lunch. Near the back of the 2nd floor, there is a Pizza Pasta restaurant, sandwiched between two enormous brick ovens and several rows of dried pasta. A few dozen chairs and tables are arranged out in the open, much like the New York version. I chose the Neapolitan upgrade, opting for bufala mozz instead of the fior di latte. The pizza was beautiful: a teensy bit wet in the middle, as is the norm, and a rim of nicely charred and blistered crust, with good salt and chew. At $19, it was a tad high, but certainly, this pizza is near my top 5 in the city already. Next time I’ll get the less expensive version with the fior di latte and be just as happy. I wasn’t nearly as happy with the agnolotti. Billed as being stuffed with meat and swimming in a butter sauce, it was simply bland; the ratio of pasta-to-filling so out of whack that all you tasted with the toothsome pasta; clearly not worth the price. But here’s where training comes in: as soon as we shared our displeasure, amends were made, the offer of a ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and crushed amaretti cookies was made, and out came the most beautiful, flower-shaped ravioli, stuffed with a gently sweet filling that we summarily devoured:
I loved seeing a mozzarella bar there, allowing you a chance to belly-up, grab one of the few stools and talk with the cheesemaker. Warning: I went for dinner last night, thinking I could get a seat at one of the dining areas, and nearly everything – from the standing-only hi-top counters to the sit-down restaurants – was booked solid.
We put our name in at Le Verdure, the vegetarian restaurant, and had only a 25-minute wait. The nice thing is they’ll take your cell number down, let you walk around (and you’ll want to walk around) and then text you when your table is ready. While we were waiting, we walked over to the brewery, and shared a bottle of an imported Belgian-style beer made in Italy. Then we walked over to the Rotisserie section, and make a snack of rapini, white beans and Brussels sprouts. When we sat down to order, we devoured a fritto misto of assorted vegetables, fried in olive oil of course, then sampled one of the most unique gnocchis I had ever seen:
When the dish arrived, we thought, “hey, we didn’t order the polenta.” But our well-informed server (who clearly had to repeat the explanation many times) informed us that this was a baked, semolina flour dumpling (which looked more like a hockey puck) embedded with Grana Padano, and is the style served in Rome. I confirmed as much from my friend Jenn Louis, the Chef/Owner of Lincoln in Portland, OR, who is writing a book on gnocchi. I love that I learn something new everyday in this job…
On the way out, I tried a few gelatos. They offer both a standard, Italian-style version, in flavors such as chocolate chip, hazelnut and sweet cream, but they also offer a brand called Lait, which comes in soft serve form. I went with some pistachio, a little bit of the sweet custard and of course, a cup of coffee:
I’m not quite sure how I feel about this place. On the one hand, it has instantly catapulted Chicago into a new stratosphere, in terms of Italian food respectability; it’s a must-visit for tourists and food lovers will be tearing their hair out, just trying to get their heads around all of the things to eat, drink and taste. On the other hand, I must now contend with additional exercise each week, as my carb and sugar load is going to skyrocket; also, those prices: did I really need to buy that $9.80 chocolate-hazelnut candy bar and that jar of pistachio cream? Probably not. If you thought Whole Foods meant “whole paycheck,” then Eataly could become known for eating your whole paycheck. To be fair, I didn’t get the sense these were all NYC prices. Some of the entrees at Le Verdure were typical for the neighborhood.
In an effort to unscientifically perform a focus group, while nibbling on my gelato last night, I started talking with a group of a dozen or so young women, all covered in colorful hijabs, and asked them where they were from. “Orland Park,” one of them told me. “We’re all here for a girls’ night out.” It’s that sort of customer – the culinary tourist from within this region of nine million people – that I think Eataly is going to need to attract and lure back again and again, if they hope to recoup that $70 million. One note on parking: DO NOT park across the street at the Rush-Ohio lot. They don’t validate, and the sticker shock of paying $36 on my way out last night was as bitter as amaro. Valet for $14 is a much better option. Ciao!