- Michael Gebert
- Joe Bastianich
Sheerly in terms of size and ambition, Eataly Chicago—which opens today at 4 PM at 43 E. Ohio (no phone, no Chicago information on the website, eataly.com)—is the food story of the year. The massive store adds almost two dozen individual restaurants and food counters to the River North scene at once, and its huge distribution network will not only bring vast amounts of imported Italian goods into the city but foster the creation of new markets for locally grown midwestern produce of all kinds.
At last week’s preview event I had the opportunity to speak with all three of Eataly’s public faces—partners Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, and Joe Bastianich—each of whom has a different take on what Eataly is about and what it aims to accomplish (and be profitable at). Those interviews will appear here for the next three days; first up is Joe Bastianich. As a food celebrity he’s best known as one of the judges of MasterChef, along with Chicago chef Graham Elliot and Gordon Ramsay. But talking to him it becomes clear that he’s the one most focused on the business vision of Eataly and readiest to talk about why it makes sense to take a chance on a massive market devoted to fine Italian foodstuffs in Chicago. Tomorrow I speak with Joe’s mother, Lidia, about Eataly’s mission to improve Italian food, and on Wednesday, Mario Batali will share his chef’s perspective.
Michael Gebert: So, you couldn’t just come to Chicago and open one restaurant, you had to open ten at once?
Joe Bastianich: What’s worth doing once is worth doing ten times, especially in a city like Chicago.
So why did you think that Chicago was the next place that Eataly needed to be?
There’s obviously a list of primary cities for Eataly. And I think getting away from the coast on the second one, and going to the midwest or what represents the midwest to the rest of the country, is really interesting from the perspective of what Eataly is, in terms of sourcing food.
I think there’s a perception that, at the end of the day, we’re an emporium of imported food, which is not true at all. Seventy percent of the food that we sell here is food that we make. So we’re sourcing local chickens, we’re sourcing local eggs, grains, lake fish. So I think the thing about Eataly is that it adapts itself to each market. And seeing Eataly come to Chicago and really have the whole bounty of the midwest to work with is an amazing thing.
What did you add that’s different from New York?
Little things. We’re going to do an Italian beef sandwich. We’re going to do a fried whitefish in the Fritto restaurant. Obviously the beer is going to be a homage to Chicago. And then at the end of the day, the flour for the pasta is local. The eggs are local. The barley for the [in-house] beer is local. The beef’s coming from Iowa. And there’s a lot of sensibility of the heartland of America in sourcing these products.
Do you feel like it represents a different version of Italy than the New York one, a different region—less coastal?
I think if it’s successful that is what it will be, because Eataly represents more than just a restaurant or a store. It represents the sensibility of the culture of the Italian table, and that would be to adapt to what the local environment is. So yeah, if Eataly became a version of a midwestern Eataly, it did everything it’s supposed to do.
Do you see other midwestern Eatalys down the road? Because I can think of some places that could use it.
Yeah, I don’t know, because Eataly also needs density.
Speaking of density, so that’s why you’re located in this office area? I have to think the lunchtime traffic from the offices in the area is a big part of business for you.
We try to find a location where we can be there for everybody—office workers, tourists, people shopping for home. It’s a big store with lots of room for everybody.
So where do you like to go? Which stand do you hit when you can just choose for yourself?
You know, it’s funny, I go to all of them. Depends on what I’m in the mood for. You know, here we also have Baffo, which is going to be also its own kind of trattoria, which New York doesn’t really have. There are a lot of bells and whistles that New York doesn’t really have. It has some fritto, it has the beer restaurant, it has the conference center, you guys have the advantage that we can sell [retail] wine and [restaurant] food together, which in New York we can’t, which is great. You have this more casual meat restaurant [La Carne]; in New York we have Manzo, which is more formal. So there’s a lot of things that New York doesn’t really have.
Chicago has an Italian culture in place, with some stores, though not necessarily in this area. What are people going to see here that they haven’t seen in that little Italian grocery?
I think, just like in New York, the Italian culture that exists is an Italian-American culture, the culture and traditions that exist are of a hundred years ago. Eataly represents the more contemporary, modern Italy, what’s happening in the Italian food scene now. And I think that will be a big difference.
Eataly represents the products that are available now. We have the largest selection of olive oils in the world. The largest selection of pasta in the world. The largest salumi and formaggi counter in the world. Complete. Definitive.
Meatwise, how much of that can you import?
Any meat that’s fermented, you can’t. So salami, sopressata, you can’t. But we import all the major prosciuttos—prosciutto cotto, bresaola, speck, mortadella.
You feel good about the salumi, then?
Yeah, for the imported salumi we have a local supplier that we think is great, I can’t think of the name—
West Loop Salumi?
Yeah, I think so.
So after Chicago, you’ve got two more planned—
Philly and Los Angeles.
And Sao Paolo, right?
Yeah, Sao Paolo. Philly’s probably a year away, and Los Angeles shortly after that.
Do you end up pressing any of your suppliers—
To the point that they break? No, fortunately there’s an abundance of good suppliers. We’re pretty organized on our logistics. It’s our job not to run out of shit!
OK, so tell me what you would tell a first-time visitor to go eat that you think would blow their mind.
I think that you have to go to our rotisserie and have a prime rib sandwich, with a porcini rub, that’s one of the mythical sandwiches of New York. In an Italian beef town, we’re going to have our Italian beef that’s pretty spectacular—and different. I think going to the seafood restaurant and having some razor clams on the plancha with some really good parsley and olive oil is pretty mind-bending. And get a fritto misto in the vegetarian restaurant, crispy, delicious mixed vegetables. I think our pizza, real true Neapolitan-style pizza with this milky mozzarella with San Marzano tomatoes is kind of a life changer. I’m getting hungry just telling you about this.