Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Touring Eataly

The scent of freshly baked bread hits my nose the moment I walk through the doors. A wooden cart of bright, colorful produce greets me at the entrance. After I shiver away the cold from outside, store my hat and gloves in my bag, the enormity of what's in front of me really sets in. This is Eataly.


For those of you who haven't heard of Eataly, it's basically heaven--squeezed into 63,000 square feet on two levels of a large structure in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. But before this Eataly graced out fair city, it first popped up in Italy (go figure) back in 2007, and the emporium has been spreading like wild fire ever since.

A little background. Eataly was founded by Oscar Farinetti, who opened the first location in Turin, Italy. His goal was to make high quality Italian food available to the masses in a welcoming environment where you can taste, learn, shop and dine--all at the same time! Now, there are 26 stores around the world, 10 in Italy, 13 in Japan, one in New York, one in Dubai, one in Turkey and one in Chicago.

The Chicago location opened recently in October 2013, and boasts 23 eateries on two floors, including customer favorite La Pizza & La Pasta and the ever popular Nutella Bar (yes, you heard me right, a bar dedicated to this glorious hazelnut spread). Locals and visitors are flocking here every day--especially on the weekends--and lines are stretching around corners and out the doors to get a taste of Eataly's delicious food. And after visiting today, I can see why.

I had the opportunity to take one of the public tours of the facility (available every Wed., $35). These tours last an hour and a half, and take you through nearly every culinary section, and even give you a glimpse of some of the action behind the scenes. It's incredibly informative and interesting, and really gives you a sense of what Eataly is all about: Good food and eating well.

We started at the information desk on the first floor where our guide gave us a little background on Eataly, and then took us through the fresh produce section. We spoke with the "vegetable butcher," whose main job is to chop the produce you want to purchase to your desired specifications. He'll even give you some tips on how to cook things and what to cook them with, so you can go home and create your own delectable dishes.

We then headed upstairs, where most of the eateries are located. Our first stop...beer. Yes, Eataly has an in-house brewing system, where they craft a couple of their own beers. Definitely wanted to try some, but it was only 10:30 in the morning, so I'll have to return for a taste at a later date.

Next, we hit the cheese counter. The glorious wheels of rich, sharp goodness were displayed proudly in front of us, and it was tough not to ask for a piece of every single one. We were given small samples of prosciutto and salami, along with a couple cheeses. Ask me what they were and I couldn't tell you, I was too preoccupied with eating.

Then, we wandered over to the fresh mozzarella station, where my new best friend Patrick was hand-making fresh, soft balls of cheese. There was a lovely plate of mozzarella drizzled in olive oil waiting for us, and we happily obliged. The flavor was still fresh on my tongue when we reached the meat section, where there was a display case of all kinds of responsibly raised cuts of beef, pork, chicken and veal, as well as Eataly's wide selection of handmade sausages. Unfortunately no samples here, and none at the Pesce (fish) counter, either. Although some lucky people were given slices of octopus--who doesn't love a rubbery tentacle? I'll pass.

It was then on to the pasta section, one of my all time favorite Italian foods. The pasta is made fresh everyday and is available for purchase, guaranteeing you the best dinner possible. We tried the agnolotti (house made meat-filled pasta with butter sauce)--amazing! I had to force myself to only have one. We made our way through the preservatives and canned goods section. (If you're looking for truffles in any form, you'll find it here, with the exception of truffle oil.)

We reached the most popular spot in Eataly: La Pizza. We watched as two trained rossopomodoro pizzaioli (pizza makers) created a fresh Neopolitan-style pizza right in front of us. We all salivated as the pizza was placed in front of us, and we happily took a slice each. I haven't had pizza like that since I was in Naples back in 2006. To. Die. For. (Seriously wishing I was eating that right now instead of my left over vegan thai food...this is just not cutting it.)

We moved on to the bakery section. I love bread, and the baguettes were just amazing. It was here that we got to go behind the bakery and see where the bread is baked, in a large wood-burning oven. The smell is enough to make you want to eat a whole loaf by yourself, but we sufficed with a small slice of their classic stuff.

From there we sampled olive oil from their extensive collection of fine Italian oils, and then made our way over to the wine section. Unfortunately the bar wasn't open, so we couldn't taste any of the Vino Libero (literally means free wine), which is meant to be wine that is free of preservatives and such. Definitely interested in trying some wines when I return.

We headed back downstairs to the pride of Eataly: The Nutella Bar. We munched on Eataly's homemade bread smothered in hazelnutty, chocolately Nutella. I was immediately transported back to my childhood days, slathering the sweet spread on a piece--or two--of toast and quickly gobbling it down. How not everyone had this sweet treat growing up, I'll never know, but it's great to see that it's getting some much deserved recognition now.

Our last stop was the gelato bar, complete with traditional and Lait (light) Gelato, which is more like soft serve--something I've never seen before. We each got a small cup of a flavor of our choice. But since I'd just had a filling slice of Nutella bread, I opted for small tastes of a few--I recommend...well...all of them!

Needless to say, I will be back to Eataly. There's so much I didn't get to try, and I would love to take some extra time to shop around for some fresh ingredients--and pick up some items that I haven't had since I lived in Italy. And I will definitely bring some of my friends with me, as I know many of them would appreciate the glory that is Eataly. The pizza. The bread. The cheese. The wine. The Nutella. I mean, it's my dream come to life! And it's only a short train ride away!


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