This month’s bucket list life dare was to be a tourist in your own region. When you live somewhere like Chicagoland, finding new places to explore doesn’t take much. In our case, the destination was Eataly, Mario Batali’s Italian marketplace concept store (locations in Rome, New York & Chicago). It seemed appropriate in light of my big dream bucket list goal to visit Tuscany. And I figured my cheese- and pasta-loving family would be game.
We set off for our mostly-indoor adventure on Saturday morning, since rain was in the forecast… until it wasn’t. No matter, traffic was light and the sidewalks were humming with shoppers when we arrived in the city. We could have parked on the street (plenty of spots were open), but the two-hour limit made us unsure. How big was Eataly? And if we ate lunch there, how long would we be? We opted for the parking garage across the street, not realizing Eataly offers valet parking for around the same cost.
Turns out, we could have parked on the street for how long we spent there. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but my biggest takeaway from this bucket list outing was that some experiences are destinations unto themselves and others are not. This one was not. Unless you are planning a special Italian dinner and want to get exactly the right ingredients. Because that, my friends, is what Eataly is all about: authentic Italian cooking. Which, of course, you could learn simply by reading their tag line: “We cook what we sell, and we sell what we cook.”
Eataly is a cross between food court and grocery store. Here are some highlights from our experience:
- Cooking gadgets: on the first floor they sell cookware and gadgets. We spent some time browsing the displays. They carry fun and innovative products, many (all?) Italian made. The gadgets are stocked in small bins with a labeled display above them telling you what is what. I admired the pasta cutters with Katherine, my fourteen-year-old, whose goal this summer is to make homemade pasta
- Chocolates, biscotti, coffees. Eataly carries a terrific variety – this is probably what tempted me most. But, as I came discover with the rest of the store, I was too overwhelmed by the options to decide. I made a note to myself that once I’ve been to Italy to try some of them, I’ll know where to stock up back home. Unfortunately, contrary to what I had heard about Eataly, we only came across one sample in the store (near guest services). Maybe we were there too early.
- Big wheels of cheese. Cheese, cheese, and more cheese. Most of them molto caro (very expensive). $55/lb? Not even my cheese aficionado husband could stomach that. It was fun to browse the cheese cases though, and maybe if we had a particular use for a certain cheese we would have gotten some.
- Fresh focaccia. We stopped to watch bread dough being kneaded in the on-site bakery. Briefly. The bakers seemed to be self-conscious about being watched, which is a little odd for someone working behind a glass wall that invites shoppers to take a peek. Whatever. They had a variety of sweet and savory fresh focaccias available. This intrigued me because I had only ever tasted focaccia made for dipping in oil. Katherine, Evelyn & I bought a blueberry sweet focaccia and Mike picked up a prosciutto and mozzarella piece. We stood at a bar-height table nearby to munch them. A layer of sugar topped the sweet focaccia and piles of blueberries filled in the dents. The bread itself balanced out the sweetness perfectly. And the mozzarella focaccia had the right blend of flavors too. On another visit I’ll gladly try the other varieties of focaccia. We could have lunched on focaccia, but we all preferred it as a “snack.”
- Gelato! Eataly offers an array of dining options: a casual pasta place, a fine Italian restaurant, a sandwich spot, and more. Whether it was from being overwhelmed by all the options or simply turned off by the cost, none of us felt like dining there. I decided it would suit me more to go there with a bunch of girlfriends. But just because we hadn’t eaten lunch yet didn’t mean we had to pass up dessert. My girls turned down buying crepes at the Nutella bar, reasoning that we could make our own at home. True. Instead we split a two-scoop gelato. Wow! If I had known how amazing Eataly’s gelato is, I would have gotten my own. The salted caramel gelato tasted like fresh caramel. And the chocolate – if you closed your eyes you would think you were enjoying a fine piece of European chocolate. No artificial flavors about this gelato.
After about 90 minutes we had our fill of Eataly. Check that one off the bucket list! But we were still hungry for lunch. So at Mike’s suggestion, we trekked a bit farther north in the city to enjoy a barbecue lunch out on the patio of Smoque.
What can I say? We’re suckers for the familiar. And now I know the next time I’m in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood I should bring my grocery list for a side trip to Eataly. I just might get my own scoop of gelato while I’m at it!
Did you take the dare to be a tourist in your own region? If so, what were the results? If not, don’t worry. Another dare is coming in July.