Finishing up my first round of midterms, I decided it was time to escape the Hyde Park bubble — an impressive feat. Sure, my weekly trips to Chipotle are nice, but when someone mentions the words “Nutella” and “lots of pasta” the night before my last paper is due, I can’t help but be interested. Word got around, and the next evening, a few of us naive first years took an Uber — public transportation is so scary, guys! — downtown in hopes of a foodie adventure.
My friend described Eataly Chicago as an “Italian Ikea.” It’s two levels full of every Italian food product you’d want to buy. Right he was: walking in was an overwhelming experience. A juice bar, crepe station, gelatería, coffee bar, never-ending aisles of chocolate — and we were only on the first floor.
We started out upstairs at the more “authentic” of Eataly’s coffee bars which only offers espresso and cappuccino. They boast an expensive-looking espresso machine that only provides two types of coffee: 1882 is sold daily, while the second brand is rotated.
I was too afraid to try a “doppio” (double shot), I ordered an espresso macchiato. Let it be noted that this is not to be confused with a Starbucks macchiato. The barista explained to me, “A larger variety of ‘Americanized’ drinks are available downstairs at the Lavazza coffee bar.” Because of that, it was up to me to add my own sugar, and boy did I need it.
Like all espresso, the amount of coffee I received was concentrated into a cup the size of two shot glasses. While pricey — the cheapest option was $2.75 for one shot, while one “strain” was $5.50 — it did leave me satisfied and woke me up. I don’t know if I’d buy it again — I like my sugar-dense lattes — but if you’re looking to prove a point by drinking “authentic” coffee (or if you want to try something new), it’s worth paying to watch the silver machine sputter out your drink.
In terms of food, Eataly is made up of different sections: pasta, pizza, bread, etc. Each section contains its own miniature restaurant and unique menu. Per recommendation, we headed to the pasta/pizza “station.”
Due to its popularity, there was a 40 minute wait to be seated. While the wait was worth it, if you’re not ready for that amount of commitment, both the vegetable and meat sections boasted impressive menus (think gnocchi) with little to no wait. Even so, the wait allowed us to further explore and nibble on the free samples (the focaccia is especially good).
In terms of samples, the most generous station was Owen + Alchemy Juicebar. Located in Lincoln Park, Owen + Alchemy describes itself as a “juice apothecary” with its Eataly station menu containing around 20 different juice concoctions. My personal favorite was the 21: an oddly satisfying mixture of blueberry, basil and sea salt. Bottles run anywhere from $10-$15 for 16 oz.
After our little side adventure, we were seated. Again, the menu was pricey; both pastas and pizzas were around $17-$24 depending on what ingredients were used. However, reading the descriptions made me forget about the $30 I knew I’d be spending on the excursion. The service was quick and friendly. They happily complied when I asked for more table-side grated Parmesan — not once, but twice during my meal.
If the description was good, the food was outstanding. I ordered a squid ink linguine with steamed mussels which was excellent and definitely enough pasta for $19. The portions were fair to generous EXCEPT for the ravioli, which only had 7 pieces for $19. While delicious, I’d expect more calories for that price.
Now, Eataly can be an overwhelming experience. I needed time to take it all in (also, to digest). Upon further wandering through the aisles of different pastas and fresh produce, I found that if one desires a more upscale dining experience for an even more upscale price.
Eataly also has “side restaurants” blocked off from the main store. Osteria di Eataly provides 6-12 guests with a full 4-course Italian meal complete with wine. For those who’d prefer a more low key experience, La Brierria is Eataly’s microbrewery which focuses on paring food with craft ales. La Brierria is seated on a first-come, first-served basis.
Despite being full, I knew I couldn’t bring myself to leave without sampling an Eataly dessert. Sweet items such as every Italian cookie or chocolate known to man are located down on the first floor. While I was tempted to try the Nutella Bar, I ended up with the less pricey gelato instead.
The gelato was good — maybe not as distinct as the pasta, focaccia or juices, but surely worth the price. While I’m more of a straticella person, another friend said the coconut flavor seemed to be vanilla gelato with white flakes in it. It was still yummy, though. However, the Nutella crepes were said to be underwhelming and not worth the price.
Our final stop was the chocolate and pastry shop where freshly filled cannolis can be purchased. I snuck in a few photos before the attendant asked me to stop touching the glass. Some of us bought cannolis in hopes of taking them home; unsurprisingly, not a single cannoli made it back to campus. They looked irresistible and tasted great (the pistachio filling comes highly recommended).
In fact, the whole Eataly experience was great overall. I’d suggest setting a budget for the night; in between my espresso, pasta and gelato, I spent $30. Others walked out of there $50-60 poorer. Even with a more economical plan, Eataly is still an adventure. Whether to walk around for 20 minutes, grab a snack or eat a whole meal, it’s something worth trying at least once.