Whenever we’re in the Flatiron district, I love to teasingly goad Michael into dropping in on Eataly; lately, his response has been simply “OK, see you at home then.” You may recall our initial impressions of Eataly New York when it first opened over Labor Day weekend in 2010; I’ve made a few visits there since then on my own, and I can’t say that my initial impressions have changed all that much. Any time I’ve purchased ingredients to make dinner I’ve been extremely satisfied with the results, and on my last visit I treated myself to a Neapolitan-style pizza that was easily among the best pizzas I ever had. But on the weekends the place was nearly as claustrophobic as it had been on opening weekend, and for all of the text on the walls celebrating Italian food culture, I was still left rather…cold.
Over Christmas I had heard that there were other Eataly locations opening up in the next few years, with a Chicago location having opened in November and space on a spot in Philadelphia allegedly secured. In chatting with my brother-in-law and his boyfriend about the latter, reflecting on the good and the disappointing, I realized that it had been a while since I went there and maybe, just maybe I had been too hard on the place, that I was trying to make it into something it never set out to be anyway. So when we were in Chicago a few weekends ago and I realized that Eataly Chicago was open and right off of Michigan Avenue, I decided to see if perhaps the second iteration had improved upon the first.
My first stop in was early (at least for a Sunday morning), just to get a cappuccino to enjoy on my walk to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The market had just opened and very few people were milling about, so I was able to get a feel for the place before the really busy period of time. This space was enormous—it felt like it was practically twice the size of the New York store—and everything was distributed among two floors. Everything was still laid out in a haphazard way so you would snake past the various restaurants and food counters, but they didn’t feel quite as serpentine or as narrow this time around. It was also much brighter: instead of walls painted in deep colors of wine-red here and there, everything was starkly white. But the real test would come when I would come back for lunch to see what this place was really like.
Yeah, foot traffic had picked up exponentially when I returned. While it wasn’t as cramped as I remember in the New York store, it was still extremely busy. The wait was predictably long at La Pizza & La Pasta if you wanted a table for a group of three or more, and the crush of diners meant that those of us seated along the counter had to wait a while before a wait staff member came to get our orders.
That left me a mite cranky, because I was hungry and once I had decided on trying the cacio e pepe, I really, really wanted it.
Was it worth the wait? Well, kind of—while the dish itself was executed flawlessly, once again I was left feeling cold, as if I found myself in a very high-end cafeteria and the intent was to get me in and out as quickly as humanly possible while only given the bare minimum when it came to friendly service. I paid and took my glass of wine to wander some more around the store, wishing it were feasible to stuff some bags of pasta into my carry-on.
My story would have ended there had a bottle of white wine not caught my attention; wanting to find a reasonably priced one to leave in the room for Michael, I headed to the central wine bar to ask for a glass and take in more of the crowd. As I stood and sipped, two older women sidled up next to me to get some glasses of their own, and the three of us ended up gabbing for a good hour and a half about anything and everything. One of them mentioned to me that within the first week of business, the store had to close because it had run out of food, a fact that continues to perplex me to this day.
Maybe I expected them to expect the rush because Eataly does not strike me as a place prone to that kind of unpredictability. Everything feels very calculated and deliberate and carefully engineered to get you to part with as much of your money as possible. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of vision and it certainly has proved to be very successful, it doesn’t make the idea of going to Eataly one that is particularly exciting. The fact that Mario Batali has congratulated himself on not charging an entrance fee into what is, in essentials, a grocery store is extremely telling—yes, the food is really delicious and yes, it is a destination of sorts, but why on earth would anyone willingly pay for the privilege to shop for groceries?
I think therein lies the crux of my issues with Eataly: for a place that is meant to be extremely food-centric, it veers far too close to being devoid of passion. I may visit it from time to time if I want a specific bottle of wine or a specialty product I know they carry, but I don’t think it will ever be the kind of place I’ll visit just for fun.