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Bergin travel column: Eataly reaches Chicago, promotes genuine Italian fare

4:48 PM, May 28, 2014  |  Comments
Chicago's Eataly is one block from Michigan Avenue and steps from the original Uno Pizzeria, where the city's deep-dish pizza was introduced in 1943.
Chicago's Eataly is one block from Michigan Avenue and steps from the original Uno Pizzeria, where the city's deep-dish pizza was introduced in 1943.
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On 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.

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.

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!"

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