A diner's guide to Eataly Chicago

How to navigate the crowds, gastro-cacophony and, oh yes, good food

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Now that I think of it, the Great Nutella Bar Riot of 2013 was probably inevitable. There was nothing anyone could have done; the conditions for an ugly situation were ideal; we are all victims in this. The Nutella bar occupies the west wall of the ground floor of the giant, new feng-shui-fever-dream in River North called Eataly Chicago. The Nutella bar is sandwiched awkwardly between a small-batch gelato maker churning out frozen scoops of sweet milk and jittery espresso junkies tapping their expensive heels at the Lavazza bar. The spot is cluttered, a culinary bottleneck, its tables clustered toward the main counter. Lines snake around the tables.

And the lines, on the day I arrived, 24 hours after the opening of Eataly Chicago, had grown DMV ominous. Two women ahead of me in line had grown anxious for their food: made-to-order crepes, perfectly augmented with tight pockets of dark brown hazelnut sweetness. The cook had walked off to find more crepe batter. Their eyes followed him with concern. A co-worker assured them he would return.

The women grew impatient. Their anxiousness spread. Have you ever been in the middle of a bad situation spinning out of control? Well, this was not that exactly, but it could have been, had the cook not returned seconds later. Though now the line was long, crepes were late and five of seven Nutella items were sold out.

The origins of Eataly, founded by Oscar Farinetti in Turin, Italy, in 2003, may be rooted in the Italian-based, intellectually centered Slow Food movement. And those Nutella crepes, when the output became steady again, were indeed tiny masterpieces of slow, simple pleasure — thin yet rich, unadorned yet Technicolor in flavor. But at the Nutella bar itself, 25 presumably orderly, popular Eataly chapters around the world later, the mood felt chaotic.

"I can't wait," a woman told the cook, who did his best to keep pace. "I can't wait," she repeated, then demanded a refund. A second customer — who told me she owns a grocery store in the suburbs and that "these guys should have had a soft opening if they knew it'd be like this" — asked for a refund. Refunds take time, the kind of time better served smearing flatbreads with Nutella, and soon grumbles turned into guffaws. When I reached the front, I told the patient, battered Eatalian behind the counter that her customers seemed ready to burn the place to the ground. She smiled thinly, warily. "It's just been, like, so nutty," she sighed.

Visiting Eataly Chicago, it seems, requires a learning curve.

Now that Eataly Chicago has been open more than a week, and no doubt many of you have swung through a few times — and many more are waiting for the Nutella lines to taper off, which is expected to happen sometime between May and when the sun envelops the Earth — what are we, Chicago eaters, to think of such gastro-cacophony? Is it worth the sharp elbows?

How does one even approach such a place — a 63,000-square-foot, 23-eatery, big-box carbo-bomb? How does the modest Midwest comprehend such opulence? As the homespun Mario Batali establishment Chicago's never had? Or as a corporate money grab from a celebrity chef? As the evolution of Italian food in Chicago? Or the redundant cooking of New York City carpetbaggers?

As serious eating? Or just a lot of fun? As a good thing for Chicago, a surprisingly necessary addition? Or merely unavoidable — the first Midwestern outpost of what appears to be a nascent national juggernaut?

The truth is: Eataly Chicago is each of these things. It is many contradictory impulses.

As in Italy, beauty and aggravation walk arm in arm.

Which makes navigation less obvious than the well-meaning "How to Eat at Eataly" signs throughout the building. For instance: The front door is on Ohio Street, but Baffo Ristorante Enoteca, Batali's 80-seat restaurant (the only eatery here that takes early reservations), is entered from Grand Avenue.

Yes, to figure out Eataly, you need advice and expectations. And a plan — the first stage of which should be: Avoid that first floor entirely. At least on your first visit. If you plan to use Eataly primarily as a lunch or dinner destination (and not a grocery store): Move toward the escalator, avoiding eye contact with the beckoning gelato makers, crepe slingers and pastry chefs. The problem isn't the food: The problem is you need strength for what awaits. Thus, at the top of the escalator, continue past the brewery toward the centerpiece, La Piazza.

Whoa, whoa.

Before you begin, in a nutshell, here's how dining at Eataly works: No. 1, you can leave your name and wait for a table at one of four primary sit-down restaurants in Eataly (most of which are clustered on the north side of the store); each of these restaurants is themed around a fundamental food group (fish, meat, vegetables, pasta). Or No. 2, at La Piazza, which dominates the middle of the second floor, grab the first chair you find (or stand at a raised marble table), and from here, order food from any of the smaller restaurants that ring La Piazza. To recap: Baffo (which, at press time, hadn't opened) is a formal experience; the four big restaurants on the second floor are more casual; and La Piazza is for transients, co-workers grabbing a quick bite and a glass of wine after work or ravenous diners, waiting for another table.

Start here — and though you might use La Piazza as a kind of appetizer warm-up for the other restaurants, you could also eat a full meal here and call it a day. Which, frankly, is the savviest way to plan a visit to Eataly: Not as three hours of wandering and grazing, but as shorter, occasional visits to several restaurants.

"Welcome to La Piazza," my waiter said, then asked, "Do you know what the word means, sir?"

I did.

He explained anyway, saying the piazza is the center of any village, rushed (necessarily, considering the crowds) through a description of the menu, speaking so quickly he sounded like a high school student reading a book report, leaving no pauses for punctuation. His Italian pronunciations were also spot-on, and when I asked if the Sierra Leone cola nuts in the soda were "blood cola nuts," he subtly rolled his eyes and earnestly replied that he would ask.

He was a professional, and despite the hectic nature of La Piazza, he was thoughtful, and the food likewise, consistent and simple: La Piazza offers menus from Il Crudo (the raw fish bar), I Salumi e Formaggi (a charcuterie station), La Mozzarella (an excellent cheese stand, offering bright, spicy pumpkin caponata alongside salty, milky balls of mozzarella so fresh you can lock eyes with the cheesemaker) and Il Fritto (a fryer that's less county fair and more lightly crisped radish coated in a northern Italian honey).

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