Eataly Chicago: Mario Batali unveils 'theme park' for Italian food

Superstar chef says super-size market will stay true to idea of simple food

Chef Mario Batali's sneak peak of his Italian super store Eataly Chicago. (Posted November 25, 2013)

Admit it: Thanksgiving festivities aside, a gigantic bowl of tagliatelle with clams, a couple of meatballs, a side of polenta and a robust, earthy red to wash it all down, sounds much better right about now, doesn't it?

Mario Batali bet his Crocs on it.

Come Monday, the famously burly, sandled chef and a small cadre of investors will open Eataly Chicago in the River North neighborhood: a ginormous, two-story, $28 million theme park of Italian food and culture. Actually, with 63,000 square feet and 23 different dining options (that's 13,000 more square feet and nine more options than the Eataly Batali opened in New York in 2010) you might even call it a kind of aircraft hangar of Italian-eating excess.

Housed in the boxy carcass of the old ESPN Zone on Ohio Street (just off Michigan Avenue), what it lacks in the stone-masoned elegance of the Manhattan location it makes up for in molto: a gelato stand, a Nutella stand, a pizza stand, a pasta maker, a pastry shop, a brewery, a meat market, a fishmonger, a bread shop, a wine shop, cooking classes, a cookbook store, a cheese counter, a vegetable-centric eatery, a seafood restaurant and Baffo, a tony fine-dining establishment (opening later in December).

The extravagance doesn't stop there: Partners include Lidia Bastianich, the PBS chef and Italian-cooking star, and son Joe Bastianich, a judge on Fox's "MasterChef" (and Batali's longtime business partner). The first Eataly opened in 2007, and there are now 17 locations, most of them in Italy and Japan. The New York Eataly pulled in $70 million its first year, the partners say, and is now one of the most-visited tourist sites in New York City.

"Frankly, we want to expand quickly," said investor Adam Saper, "but you have no idea how hard it is to find 60,000 square feet in the middle of large American cities." Indeed, Batali & Co. expect to open at least one new Eataly every year for the next five or six years: Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.

As for Chicago: Asked if they were concerned about Eataly's big footprint and bigger ambitions, a number of owners and chefs of local Italian restaurants and markets said they weren't worried. To them, it looks more touristy than homey. "It's going to be a spectacle," said Jim Graziano, fourth-generation owner of the J.P. Graziano Italian market on Randolph Street. "So, as curious as I am, I won't go anywhere go near there for a year."

"Am I nervous?" asked Jonathan Fox, owner of La Madia, an Italian restaurant a couple of blocks away. "No. In that space, it'll be interesting to see if they can get close to the warm feelings they created in New York."

Asked to explain how the sheer scale of Eataly jibes with the earthy, hands-on reputation of its star partners, Lidia Bastianich said: "In Italy, you shop for meat, bread, have coffee then stop for wine with a friend. This is about having that in one place. And it's about our philosophy of life, of simple pleasures."

It's also "outrageously expensive, to be honest," said John Mariani, the Esquire food critic and author of "How Italian Food Conquered the World" (which features a foreword written by Lidia Bastianich). "But give Mario the credit: The man is literally larger than life, and for several decades now, everyone has copied him."

Earlier this week, as health inspectors floated around and Eataly's 650 employees buzzed about making last-minute tweaks, Batali sat down for a chat. He wore orange Crocs and an orange necktie, which hung askew across his bowling-ball chest. The following is an edited, condensed version of a longer conversation.

Q: Why, after establishing itself in New York, was Chicago for the next U.S. location for Eataly?

A: Basically, because Chicago is the most progressive restaurant city in the country. It's rich with resources and supports new things: The experimental chefs, of course, the molecular gastronomists, at Alinea, at Moto, at Schwa, being the most obvious examples. I don't think even New York would support so much bold cooking. Plus, this neighborhood, it's the right part of town, and the right mix of people. Understand: We bring Italian food, yes. But the larger idea is to lend an Italian eye to white fish and walleye, local cheeses, the Eastern European-style sausages here — what Chicago has had forever, we want to give an Italian twist.

Q: Which can also be read as an out-of-towner telling local Italians what they already know.

A: Yes, there is potential for that, but the truth is, Italians are like that! Territorial and feisty. They don't like the guy from the next town establishing himself on their block. But hopefully, in terms of other Italian restaurants and markets, the rising tide lifts all boats. When I get stopped by Italians now, and I get stopped everywhere, it's generally joyous: They tell me how I cooked something they haven't seen since their aunt died 17 years ago. You start to feel like the cultural inheritor of something that's been around since the Roman Empire. It's important because, in the 21st century, a lot of people still think Italian means pizza.

Q: OK, so why, then, is Eataly Chicago dedicated to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway?

A: He's virtually a Chicagoan (actually, Oak Park), and my partner Oscar Farinetti (who founded the first Eataly, in Turin, Italy, in 2007) is a big reader and a huge fan of Hemingway. I've been a big fan myself. Plus, Hemingway spent a lot of time in Spain, of course, drove an ambulance (in Italy). And I spent a lot of time in Spain. I recognize it's probably a bit off the beaten path in terms of well-known locals, but it's very legitimate to me.

Q: What's wrong with Al Capone?

A: (Laughs.) Oh, nothing, nothing. Probably the same problem's there that a lot of friends of mine saw with "The Sopranos" — they thought the show denigrated Italians, though really I never felt that way myself.

Q: Is it true you studied Spanish theater in college?

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