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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Let there be no mistake, Eataly Chicago is big. With 63,000 square feet of space, dozens upon dozens of aisles of groceries, and 22 (or so) different restaurants and bars, it is literally enormous. But the most surprising aspect of the second domestic location of this Italian superstore is that it also genuinely wants to be the best. This is no dumbed down Italian theme park. The quality of everything, from the delicate handmade pasta and crusty bread to the impeccably fresh fish and dry-aged beef, is astonishingly high. While you can purchase all of those items to eat at home, the many different restaurants care deeply about what they serve.

But with so many options, where do you even begin? That's the question that first overwhelmed when it opened back in November. Instead of setting up all the stations in one big food court, most exist as individual restaurants. This may frustrate some parties hoping graze on fresh seafood and a steak. It also means that the combined pizza and pasta restaurant is always packed, even when others barely have a diner. But if you give Eataly some time, you'll realize that each restaurant has its own character. The fish station is about ten feet from the pizza one, but while the latter is hurried and exciting, the former is relaxed and inviting.

Eataly is Huge

Instead of attempting some grand and ridiculous quest to eat at all of Eataly's restaurants in one go, I decided to take it slow. That meant over 10 separate visits scattered over the past two months, where I tried to eat at no more than two restaurants at a time. Sometimes I had help, other times I dined solo. Along the way, I gathered some definite opinions about what worked and what didn't.

My biggest advice? Try to visit Eataly for lunch during the week. I did the majority of my eating during this time and hardly ever had to wait for a seat. The only exception is the constantly packed La Pizza and La Pasta corner. If you can't visit during the week, you might have to resign yourself to waiting for pizza and pasta. I'd suggest trying one of the other restaurants, like Il Pesce, Le Verdure, or La Carne.

What about Baffo? Eataly's only fine dining option is kind of its own thing. It happens to be a wonderful thing, but know that it's very expensive and has a completely different vibe. I have many more thoughts on it below.

6 Essential Restaurants at Eataly Chicago

I'm going to delve pretty deep into all the different options, but if you just want to skip all of that and jump to my favorite places to eat, here you go. These are the six spots that genuinely impressed me.

The Restaurants

The Map

Each of the upstairs restaurants has its own tables, though some, like Focaccia and Rotisserie, are just high-tops without seats. Seating is far more limited on the first floor. There are a few tables by the Nutella Bar and Lavazza, but these fill up very quickly.

2nd Floor

1st Floor

La Pizza

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Must Try Dish: Margherita ($14)

Let's just jump right to what is, without a doubt, the most popular restaurant area at Eataly. La Pizza and La Pasta are grouped together in the back left corner and also share a menu, making this the most immediately appealing area for a group. Even when the other restaurants are mostly empty, this one always seems to have a crowd. Obviously, everyone loves pizza (that is a fact, right?), so that partly explains its draw. But Eataly could have capitalized on the draw and kicked out some serviceable, if unspectacular, options to feed the masses. That's not the case.

The Margherita pizza here is the real deal. No other Neapolitan pizza in Chicago has both a beautifully charred crust and an appealing balance of crisp exterior to airy, soft interior. I tried a couple options, but for my money, nothing tops a light brushing of tart and slightly sweet tomato sauce and a smattering of just-melted tangy mozzarella. After a few bites, I realized that there is the very real possibility that this is the best Neapolitan pizza in Chicago.

I realize some completely disagree with my assessment, and perhaps I just got a few lucky batches. But even if that is the case, I'd rather play the odds for a transformative pizza experience here than spend my money anywhere else.

La Pasta

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Must Try Dish: Bucatini all'Amatriciana ($17)

When I got ready to order at La Pasta, my waitress inquired whether I was aware of the concept of al dente pasta. "Why, yes," I said, hurt that someone would feel the need to ask me that basic question. But after one bite of the bucatini all'amatricina, I realized why I was given the warning: this was the most al dente pasta I'd ever sunk my teeth into. Instead of a mushy tangle of tender noodles, each strand had heft and character. Some might find this off-putting, but I found it immensely satisfying. Instead of being covered up in a pool of sauce, the pasta is coated in a defiantly straightforward tomato sauce, which allows you to appreciate the full-flavored guanciale and sweet red onions. I could have used a bit more heat, but there is very little wrong here.

Sounds great, right? But $17 for a pasta with tomato sauce? I realize this is hard to justify, though I will point out that the portion is big. Plus, I'd much rather have a stripped down dish expertly crafted like this than a platter of haphazardly cooked pasta with loads of meat on top. That's just me.

La Piazza: La Mozzarella, Il Crudo, I Salumi e Formaggi and Il Fritto

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Must Try Dish: Bocconcini, fresh mozzarella with pumpkin caponata ($14)

The center of the second floor is dedicated to La Piazza. Though there is only one menu, it's made up of four different restaurants: La Mozzarella, Il Crudo, I Salumi e Formaggi, and Il Fritto. You'll notice that there are no regular tables in this area, just a collection of bar seats and high-tops for standing. That's no accident. This is food meant for snacking and socializing, hopefully with a glass of wine in hand. Because you can order from any of the four no matter where you sit, there are loads of options.

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This is also where I had the most misfires. Everything I tried from Il Fritto disappointed. A mixed seafood platter, fritto misto di pesce ($21), looked beautiful, but was almost inedibly salty. The fried risotto balls, supplì ($12), actually crossed that line—I could actually see piles of salt on top, which I tried valiantly to brush off.

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The offerings at Il Crudo were marginally better, in that they weren't offensive. But none of the three raw options in the crudo del mercato ($15) were particularly exciting, especially for the price.

If you're in this area, I think you should focus on I Salumi e Formaggi and La Mozzarella. It's hard to go wrong with the extensive offerings at the former, while the cheese at the latter is made fresh in the store. It's fantastic stuff—tangy and extra creamy—and pairs well with the pumpkin caponata in the bocconcini ($14).

La Carne

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Must Try Dish: 14 oz Piedmontese Boneless Ribeye ($42)

I didn't have exceptionally high hopes for La Carne. As I've mentioned before, even when all the different stations are packed, La Carne always seems to have empty tables. I don't think it helps that it isn't paired with another restaurant, making the very meat-centric menu a hard sell to some groups looking for variety (and more vegetables). So imagine my surprise when I had one of the best meals of the whole adventure.

In fact, 14 oz Piedmontese Boneless Ribeye ($42) is one of the very best steaks I've eaten in Chicago, and I've recently eaten a lot of steak. What makes it so unique? La Carne is serving some steaks from Piedmontese cattle—raised atToro Ranch in Broken Bow, Nebraska—which are both lean and exceptionally tender. It's almost hard to believe at first—aren't the best steaks absolutely loaded with fat? I don't know how it is done, but there is no question that the steak has a clean and direct beefy profile. You can read more about my thoughts on this steak here.

I should note that this was one of the specials on my visit. Each day there is a different special cut available, though I can't imagine any of them being bad.

Birreria

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Must Try Dish: Sophia beer, 'nduja ($8)

Beer at an Italian place? Why, yes. As is the case with the New York outlet, Eataly has a whole section dedicated to beer. Sure, you can get wine here, but the options are rather limited, which is in direct contrast to the beer, where there are more options than you could (hopefully) ever try. There are also a few home-brews on the menu. Of the two I tried, I really loved the Sophia ($7), a smooth Belgian wit beer made with three kinds of peppercorns.

As with any good bar, there are snacks. Most of these trend toward fatty and salty, which is not a bad thing. I suggest going for the 'nduja ($8), which is the kind of ridiculously meaty thing you want slathered on bread after a few cold ones. If only bar snacks were always this good.

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Considering it has great beer and fantastic snacks, I guess it's no surprise that Birreria gets very packed, especially at night and on the weekends. It's a bit chaotic, and the service was a bit scattered on my two visits, but it's actually a great bar to hang out in. Even my 6-month-old daughter enjoyed the visit.

Il Pesce

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Must Try: Pesce di lago, Grilled local lake fish with braised zucchini, tomato and onion ($23)

Just steps from the chaotic bustle of La Pizza, Il Pesce feels like a calm retreat. This could be my own projection, because I had such a great visit, but every time I walked by the diners here looked relaxed and happy. And why wouldn't they be while eating such impeccably fresh seafood? Like its seafood neighbor, Il Crudo, Il Pesce is all about offering up fish and shellfish in a straightforward and unfussy manner. But where I found the raw seafood underwhelming and overpriced, I couldn't get enough of the cooked options here.

This is hard to explain, but I love how straightforward and unencumbered every dish is here. Take the pesce di lago ($23), which on my visit was grilled trout with braised zucchini, tomato, and onion. As you can see in the picture, the skin was left on the fish fillet. Most restaurants would try to get that skin as crispy as possible, grilling it over high heat until it almost shatters when you dig a knife in. Yet, that's not the case here. I initially thought that this was a mistake, until I dug into the actual fish, which was shockingly juicy and almost buttery. This is just top quality fish, cooked simply and honestly.

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Sometimes heat isn't even needed, like for the marinated sardines in the pesce azzuro ($12). This sardines are briny, as are the capers. So why is flavor of the firm-fleshed sardine so clean and light?

Le Verdure

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Must Try: Verdure alla Piastra ($18)

As you'd expect, you feel the most virtuous at Le Verdure, which makes sense considering its all-vegetable menu. To really appreciate Le Verdure's vegetable cooking skills, go with the verdure alla piastra ($18), a platter of grilled vegetables and farro, tied together with a Nebbiolo vinaigrette. This shouldn't work. Usually grilled vegetables are cooked until falling-apart soft, but these still have some serious bite, and instead of slicking them with loads of olive oil, they are very lightly seasoned with salt. But this care also gives them integrity to stand up to the farro, and not just break apart until a gooey mess. It's kind of stunning, and proof that Le Verdure loves vegetables as much as its name suggests.

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We've already written about the pinzimonio con bagna cauda ($12), which is a collection of raw vegetables served with a pungent anchovy sauce. Though the price seems a bit much, it is a lot of food, and sharing is definitely the way to go. I'm not sure you can find a crunchier or more pleasing collection of raw vegetables during this brutal winter. Plus, can you imagine how great this dish will be during the harvest?

La Rotisserie

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Must Try: leg of lamb sandwich ($11.80)

La Rosticceria is stuck in a slightly awkward spot, sort of by La Piazza, but not quite part of that crowd. Because of its standing tables and sandwich-heavy menu, this is more of an eat quickly and leave option (or simply, grab and go). Instead of trying offer a little bit of everything, there are only two options—a different daily special and prime rib. Because I swung by on a Tuesday, I got the chance to try the leg of lamb sandwich ($11.80). Even though I went with the regular size instead of large, it was an enormous portion that refused to stay neatly inside the roll. The lamb itself was nicely seasoned, with a pleasing gamey profile. It is kind of bare bones—it could perhaps use some partners in crime, like a cheese or some bitter greens—but there is no doubting the quality.

Focaccia

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I thought I had a find on my hand. While there never seemed to be a table available at La Pizza, there is focaccia pizza ready for the taking at Focaccia. This square-shaped style of pizza is common in Italy, and the two slices that I tried, classica ($1.80) and red onion & rosemary ($2.80), both looked great and were genuine bargains. But instead of crisp, the bread itself was flimsy and soft. I assumed they just needed more time in the oven, but while I was able to crisp them up at home, they still didn't quite come together. Now, I wouldn't call these terrible, they are perfectly edible and feature top quality ingredients, but neither is a worthy substitute for the offerings at La Pizza.

Panini

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Must Try: Puttanesca ($8.80)

Unlike the sandwiches at Roticceria, the sandwiches at Panini actually have more than one thing on them. Not that they are swimming in unnecessary toppings—the offerings are mostly composed of a few very flavorful components. That is definitely the case with the puttanesca ($8.80), which features briny artichokes, a salty tapenade, and sweet "semi-dried" tomatoes. I can't decide if the crusty bread is right on or slightly overwhelming (you definitely have to put your jaws to work). Still, because it's located directly to the right on the first floor, this is a great option if you just want to grab something and leave.

Nutella Bar

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Must Try: Saccottino con Nutella ($3.80)

Oh, the Nutella bar! This little stand picked up loads of buzz when Eataly Chicago first opened, because, you know, Nutella. You'd think that your enjoyment will depend solely on whether you're a disciple of the sugary hazelnut spread, but that's not quite the case. All of the options are simply Nutella spread on different kinds of bread and pastries. While I have no shame in saying I love Nutella, I also have a jar of it at home, so pane con Nutella for $2.80 didn't immediately sound like the greatest thing ever. But what you want is the Saccottino con Nutella ($3.80), which is sort of like a square croissant. Made of dozens of flakey, buttery, and crisp layers, it's the most decadent treat at the stand, and my personal favorite.

Il Gelato and Lait Gelato

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Must Try: Pistachio Gelato

Il Gelato on the first floor is another one that is always packed, and there's no doubting that the offerings are creamy and smooth, with interesting flavor options. I'm quite partial to the pistachio gelato, and this is definitely a worthy version. But because we're in the middle of a disastrous and very cold winter, I just didn't have the heart to really dig in. It's going to have seriously warm up before I can decide how this truly compares to a place like Black Dog Gelato. I hope you'll forgive me.

La Pasticceria

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Must Try: Tiramisu

This is another place I'm not sure I did complete justice, but how can you hope to cover a place with so many options? What I did try was very good, especially the hand filled cannolis, which were a daily special. The tiramisu was refreshingly simple, with none of the gloopy chocolate sauce that too many places pour on. Instead, it was cool and light, with an undercurrent of strong espresso.

Baffo

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Baffo is Eataly's lone fine-dining option, and the only thing I knew about it before my visit was that it was expensive. This is a fact. If you paused at some of the prices of the other restaurants mentioned above, you should probably avoid Baffo entirely, because its menu will make your head swirl. The antipasti prices start in the mid teens, the cheapest pasta dish is $19, and most of the entrees hover in the $30 to $50 range. And you better believe the waitstaff stresses that the potions are small and that you should probably order a dish from all three categories. (Personally, I think two of the three is more than enough.)

Perhaps the prices help explain why Baffo feels very New York to me, which was initially off-putting. This is hard to explain, but instead of striving to impress you, the restaurant feels cocky and self-assured. Basically, it reminds me of much smaller version of Mario Batali's Del Posto. Because Eataly is enormous, Baffo's small and sparsely decorated dining room comes as a bit of a shock. The room is also starkly decorated, with hard tile floors and mostly bare brown walls—only a few scattered paintings break things up. The main feature is a large gray column stuck rather awkwardly in the middle of the room.

But no matter how much I try to nitpick at Baffo, it's impossible to argue with any of the food, which was always fascinating and occasionally astonishing. I'd like to challenge anyone to find a better plate of octopus in Chicago than the polpo alla piastra ($18). You know how even very good octopus dishes always have a bit of chew to them? Well, this one doesn't. Instead, each of the charred tentacles is tender, yet also savory and meaty, and laced with the slightest bit of heat. My dining partner, Mr. Dennis Lee, was only slightly hyperbolic when he declared this "probably the best thing ever."

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The other highlight was the orecchiette con salsiccia di agnello ($23), which is a fairly traditional pasta dish that combines broccoli rabe and sausage. Of course, numerous other places flout their handmade pastas, but each individual orecchiette actually tasted like it was formed around someone's thumb, resulting in slight and fascinating textural differences. I realize the irony of celebrating a very expensive version of what probably started as a homey and uncomplicated dish, but consider all the labor costs involved in that one bowl. Plus, isn't there something genuinely appealing about have a classic so flawlessly prepared? One that doesn't feel the need to toss in lobster or black truffles, but just takes the essence of the dish and tries to execute it as expertly as possible? I mean, I'd rather have an Italian grandma make this for me for nothing, but it's not my fault I grew up around no-nonsense Protestants in Indiana (who, besides their lack of pasta making skills, are wonderful people).

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I'd be content to spend my next visit exclusively in the pasta section—with a side of octopus, obviously—though I have admit that the costolette d'agnello ($40), a platter of grilled lamb chops with sunchokes and chanterelles, is very well done. Tender, gamey, meaty. All wonderful things.

Where to Drink

Vino Libero

If you're worried about where to drink, don't be. You're basically spoiled for choice as far as booze goes. You can drink at almost all of the restaurants upstairs. Vino Libero is the dedicated wine bar, and it's a fine place to have a glass. But I can see how some might find the far more social atmosphere of La Piazza to be the better spot. Don't forget about Birrerria. Not only does it offer a truly fascinating collection of beers, it actually feels like a bar and not like you're drinking in the middle of a food court (not that that is a bad thing).

Caffé Vergnano

As for coffee, you have two options. The first floor has an outlet of Lavazza, which is a very good Italian coffee chain. Just know that there are other, less crowded, outlets of Lavazza downtown. I'd suggest heading upstairs to Caffee Vergnano, which offers exceptional espresso. Plus, there hardly ever seems to be a line.


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