Top: La Piazza's lemon-splashed calamari, octopus, and shrimp, and its salumi and formaggi station; bottom: the market’s citrus selection
Top: La Piazza's lemon-splashed calamari, octopus, and shrimp, and its salumi and formaggi station; bottom: the market’s citrus selection Credit: Andrea Bauer

Back when I worked in the neighborhood, not a week went by that I didn’t stop at L’Appetito, the little near-north-side Italian deli on Huron now in its 33rd year. Whether it was for an espresso and panino, a cup of gelato, a bottle of good olive oil, a pound of imported pasta, or a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, L’Appetito was a quick and essential part of my routine that helped me eat well during the workday and at home. These days it’s easier for me to access other great little Italian deli/markets in less central neighborhoods, like Bari Foods on Grand, J.P. Graziano on Randolph, and Riviera on Harlem. These are places I’m willing to drive out of my way to visit, not just for their thoughtfully selected products, but for the genuine human interaction you can have with people who’ve been immersed in Italian food all their lives.

But when the sprawling, double-decker Chicago outpost of the pan-Italian market and upscale food court Eataly landed like a Cylon Basestar just three blocks south of L’Appetito in the former ESPN Zone, I didn’t think much of my old stop at first, or any of my current regular ones.

You could say Eataly fought for my soul, and I wanted to be taken. I’d visited the store’s older sister next to Madison Square Park in Manhattan, spun around and got lost in its twisting, claustrophobic pathways, stood drinking wine and eating salumi and cheese elbow to elbow with strangers, and stared gobsmacked at the endless universe of dried pastas and fresh cheeses. I was as impressed as any slack-jawed midwestern yokel could be, but I wondered if an enterprise of such paralyzing seduction could survive in River North.

At 63,000 square feet, Eataly Chicago is larger and relatively roomier than its New York sibling, but there are times, particularly on weekends, when you may find yourself jittering tentatively among the crowds like a lab rat in an unsolvable maze. Eataly needs independent, objective tour guides.

Comparisons to Ikea’s inescapable floor plans are often made, but wandering around Eataly I often felt I was in a culinary version of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” where the bookshelves contain every possible arrangement of the alphabet, resulting in an information overload that renders it useless to anyone who wants to find a readable book. At Eataly, instead of books it’s pesto sauces and dried pasta, olive oils and vinegars, wine and salami, and eight different kinds of raw-milk Parmigiano. Somewhere, amid the dozens of different brands of tomato sauce, is the right one. But how will you ever know?

This is an environment that tends to inspire annoyance or anxiety. The one thing Eataly doesn’t have is a chill-out room, with soft lights, comfy pillows, and ambient music to ease shoppers down from their frantic highs.

What Eataly does have in the way of stress relief is alcohol, and you’re free to explore its wilderness wine in hand—but it’s wise to consider the role booze can play in encouraging impulse buying. The price on that prosecco jelly or hazelnut-tuna sauce or Barolo vinegar might not seem too prohibitive after a few glasses of Zamo Rosso 2012.

Eataly’s stated mission is to encourage home cooking with these products, and part of the strategy is to turn them over by pitching them, directly or indirectly, in the 15 restaurants, bars, and food stands that in total offer an overwhelming embarrassment of choices. So a server may point out that the delicious grilled bitter green salad you’re eating in Le Verdure, Eataly’s vegetable-focused restaurant, is drizzled with a $45.80 balsamic vinegar from Modena that happens to be displayed just to your left. And you may notice that the long, sleek, conical cheese grater a line cook is zithering over your quadrati con ricotta e spinaci in the pasta restaurant, La Pasta, is designed by Alessi and is available in the downstairs kitchenware department for a cool $98. Maybe you can find a recipe for that Sicilian lifeguard–style calamari you had at Baffo,* Eataly’s fine-dining restaurant, in one of the cookbooks penned by Eataly partners Mario Batali or Lidia Bastianich. Did you enjoy Joe Bastianich’s Friulian Adriatico Sauvignon with your oysters? You’re in luck. It’s for sale in the wine department without the 100-percent-plus restaurant markup.

If this approach is going to work, the food in the restaurants, most of which are situated on the second floor, better be good. The most pleasant place to ponder that question is La Piazza, the wide-open central space meant to evoke an Italian city square. Here you can stand at the communal high-top tables in the center, or you can perch yourself on one of the rickety, uncomfortable, clear plastic chairs in the outlying stations. You can snack on some exceedingly fresh, warm, olive-oil-and-sea-salt-sprinkled mozzarella as you watch it being made (though you might notice near the end of the day that the packaged balls bathing in their water have started to disintegrate). Pair that with some thinly sliced prosciutto and a plate of lightly fried, lemon-splashed calamari, octopus, and shrimp, or a selection of minimally garnished fresh raw fish from the crudo bar, and you’ll be eating some of the best food Eataly has to offer.

Le Verdure also has some appealing dishes apart from the aforementioned grilled bitter greens, including gnocchi with tomato and mushroom ragu, and an “egg in purgatory,” baked in polenta with tomato sauce. But it’s the barely cooked vegetables here that stand out from the rest, including a selection of just-warmed green beans, carrots, brussels sprouts, rapini, and zucchini (far fresher than the limp-looking produce on the first floor) tossed with nutty farro and dressed with a light Nebbiolo vinaigrette. A selection of crudites is arranged around a tub of bagna cauda, the emulsified anchovy and olive oil dip that should replace hummus as the nation’s leading carrot-stick accompaniment.

The freshness and simplicity of these dishes show an admirable resistance to the habit of overcomplicating good ingredients. However, Eataly occasionally does stoop to pandering. In Birreria, its beer-focused restaurant, it must have been calculated that midwesterners couldn’t drink beer without a bratwurst, this one flaccid and loose-skinned, or a selection of fried things: octopus, mushrooms, sausage balls, chickpeas. And though the beers include a selection of Italian imports unprecedented in these parts, Birreria’s first house-brewed ale, Gina, an IPA brewed with imported thyme, tastes like flat, liquid catnip.

At Il Pesce, resolutely Italian-style seafood preparations with minimal fussiness—fat but rubbery and sandy broiled razor clams, an overly fishy, oily, and unbalanced zuppa di pesce—share menu space with whole, oven-roasted market fish and a changing pan-seared fillet (I had a sea bass overgarnished with microgreens and cauliflower puree).

Maybe it’s the dark, meat-centric La Carne, which has its own enclosed dining room, that’s the most disappointing. While three crispy coins of fatty, seared cotechino sausage bedded on lentils with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar seem just about perfect, poor execution tends to spoil the otherwise high-quality meat Eataly has at its disposal. Strips of grilled beef heart with salsa verde were rubbery and underseasoned, and otherwise flavorful and tender lamb shoulder was bedded on a pile of overcooked fregola. Worst of all, an underseasoned strip steak came charred on one side and dull gray on the other, with a mushy border of colorless flesh that slowly brightened to pink.

Eataly’s most consistently popular restaurant is La Pizza & La Pasta. There’s almost always a wait to access the offerings from the open pasta counter or the pair of gilded, wood-burning pizza ovens, which produced one of the most disappointing Neapolitan pies I’ve ever encountered. Neapolitan pizzas are supposed to have a soft, doughy nucleus that spreads out to a more tender charred crust at its diameter. The pizza I tried at Eataly was a disaster. The outer edges of the crust were appealingly blistered, but the entire bottom of the pie was thoroughly saturated by tomato sauce, rendered mozzarella and sausage fat, and water extruded from cooked mushrooms. I had better luck with pasta: ribbony, snappy tagliatelle with rich short-rib ragu, and tiny, dense agnolotti stuffed with a mixture of mortadella, pork, and veal, lightly dressed in melted butter. With both dishes, the sauces didn’t distract from the near-perfect pasta.

I haven’t visited Eataly’s two coffee bars, but I’ve already written about its Rosticceria, where a hunk of slow-roasted meat (which changes daily) is sliced onto sandwiches that are ultimately overwhelmed by the rustic bread. The same is true at the I Panini station on the first floor, where the sandwiches spend too little time under the press, and the fillings remain cold.

There are delicious bites all over Eataly, occasionally in the most unexpected places: a small plate of sweet rock shrimp with leeks, served by a vaguely contemptuous bartender at the wine bar Vino Libero; a schmear of rich chocolate-hazelnut spread on a flaky croissant bun at the Nutella bar; the soft-serve pistachio lait (made from the milk of pastured Piedmontese cows) at the Láit Gelato that’s one of the creamiest, most richly flavored dairy products I’ve put in my mouth in a long time (the gelato, on the other hand, can be icy and unpleasant).

The bottom line: Eataly is hardly the last word in Italian food in Chicago. There are many restaurants all over the city that are doing better renditions of the specialties offered at any one of Eataly’s restaurants. Nella Grassano has nothing to fear from La Pizza. Nellcote needn’t worry about La Pasta. I’d head for Gene & Georgetti for a steak before I’d even consider La Carne.

As far as the market goes, it offers great resources: the butcher counter with its premium Piedmontese beef, the fresh pasta station, the mozzarella bar, the salumi selection. I want to spend a whole day sampling Eataly’s dizzying inventory of Italian cheeses cut to order. But while the small Italian markets around the city may view Eataly as a threat, it’s never going to be a regular resource for me—even as the shine wears off and the lines die down.

That’s mostly because while Eataly offers the exciting possibility that there’s always more to learn, there’s also the frustrating realization that you’re stuck in a school with overcrowded classrooms—and too many distractions—to earn a proper education.

*Baffo opened a few weeks later than the rest of the store; I’ll be reviewing it separately.