Chicago’s Eataly: easy immersion into all things Italian

overviewOn the last day of our first trip to Italy, in 2008, my priority was a two-hour bus ride from Milan to Turin and the birthplace of Slow Food International, whose worldwide efforts protect food heritage.

That visit was a couple of weeks before the area’s Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto – the massive, biennial gatherings that began in 1996 to honor artisanal and regionally unique foods. I didn’t realize my irritatingly bad timing until after locking in airfare, months earlier.

The little pilgrimage occurred anyway because I wanted to understand what made the area so magical to foodies who love what is culturally authentic. Answers were loud and clear once inside of Eataly, which opened in 2007 in a former Turin vermouth factory.

Founder Oscar Farinetti’s mission was to showcase his passion for eating and Italy’s many indigenous products. These items were for sale in a sprawling marketplace and to eat or drink at restaurants on the premises.

Nowhere else could you indulge and immerse yourself so deeply in Italian products, rural and urban, mass-produced and lesser known. I figured that I’d never again experience such a culinary palace, but I was wrong.

Now the world has an Eataly in 27 cities (most in Italy and Japan), and the largest of two in the U.S. opened recently in Chicago’s River North. It is a block west of Michigan Avenue and a neighbor to the original Uno Pizzeria, where the city’s deep-dish pizza was introduced in 1943.

The Chicago Eataly is remarkable because of its size (63,000 square feet), its inventory (100-plus olive oils, for example) and its culinary transparency. Bread bakers, beer brewers and mozzarella makers work behind glass observation windows. Cooks fry fish, slice pizza and flip skillets of just-sauced pastas while customers watch from table and counter seating.

So you’re surrounded by ongoing food theater, the pace is nearly athletic and the heat – depending upon your seat – is palpable.

Of the 23 eateries here, only one – the 80-seat Baffo – is fine dining with reserved seating. The rest? It’s first-come, first-served and impromptu.

A voracious nibbler might order antipasto at one counter, then move to the 20-seat La Rosticceria to devour slow-roasted meat, or the 60-seat Le Verdure for vegetarian fare. This is one big shopping emporium and dining room without walls.

Dessert might mean a scoop of pistachio gelato, limoncello-soaked cake, gluten-free cookies or Nutella in crepes or cannoli. Next to the Nutella bar are jars of the hazelnut spread, and that’s the way Eataly works elsewhere, too.

Shopping and eating intersect everywhere. Some customers browse with a glass of wine in hand. Next to key merchandise are maps of Italy with a brief explanation of what makes a product unique.

“Have Parmigiano like Botticelli,” a cheese sign suggests, for real-McCoy Parmesan, “the original breed ‘Reggiano’ – red cow – used for centuries in the making of cheese. Only 2,500 head left!”

So visitors learn while browsing, watching, indulging or sitting through a cooking class or tasting event. “Education is a key element of our philosophy,” Eataly materials explain. “That is why we choose to make our products right in front of your eyes.”

T-shirt souvenirs play off of the experience.

Says one: “Vuoi sederti accanto a me a lezione?” (Do you want to sit next to me in class?)

And other: “La vita e troppo breve per mangiare male.” (Life is too short to eat bad.)

Chicago’s Eataly, 43 E. Ohio St., opens at 10 a.m. daily. The other U.S. Eataly is in New York City’s Flatiron District. eataly.com, 312-521-8700

Turin is 90 miles southwest of Milan, and the next Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto happen Oct. 23-27. This year’s theme is food diversity as an alternative to industrial agriculture. slowfood.com, terramadre.info

Slow Food USA (slowfoodusa.org) has chapters in southeast Wisconsin (slowfoodwise.com), Madison (slowfoodmadison.org), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (slowfooduw.com), Marathon County and Madeline Island.

Closer to home is this quintet of smaller but fine purveyors of authentic Italian fare:

Tenuta’s Deli, 3203 52nd St., Kenosha: Operated by the same Italian American family since 1950. Specialties include muffuletta salads and Muffo-Lotta sandwiches. House-made sausages sizzle on the outdoor grill. tenutasdeli.com, 262-657-9001

Fraboni’s Italian Specialties, 822 Regent St., Madison: In the Italian Greenbush neighborhood, and open since 1971. Porketta, herb-enriched and boneless pork roasts, are popular. Also at 108 Owen Rd., Monona. frabonisdeli.com, 608-256-0546

Glorioso’s Italian Market, 1011 E. Brady St., Milwaukee: Stocking Mediterranean fare since 1946 and named the city’s best deli, multiple times. Founded by three brothers, sons of a Sicilian fisherman. gloriosos.com, 414-272-0540

Il Ritrovo, 515 S. Eighth St., Sheboygan: Neopolitan pizzas are a dining specialty in one room; another stocks the casual restaurant’s ingredients that come from Italy. Across the street: fine dining at Trattoria Stefano (same owner). ilritrovopizza.com, 920-803-7516

Bella Curella Cheese and Italian Deli, 1858 Hwy. 63, Comstock: Attached to a century-old cheese factory in rural Barron County is a nifty shop whose estimated 500 food/beverage offerings include Italian meats and wines. 715-822-2437

The nation’s largest festival of Italian heritage, Festa Italiana, happens July 18-20 at Henry Maier Festival Park, along Milwaukee’s Lake Michigan shoreline. festaitaliana.com, 414-223-2808