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posted: 2/12/2014 5:45 AM

Savoring Italy glass by glass, bite by bite at Eataly

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  • Refuel for more shopping with a glass of wine and a proscuitto platter at Eataly in Chicago.

       Refuel for more shopping with a glass of wine and a proscuitto platter at Eataly in Chicago.
    Deborah Pankey | Staff Photographer

  • Carts of citrus and other produce greet shoppers at the entrance of Eataly, 43 W. Ohio St., Chicago.

       Carts of citrus and other produce greet shoppers at the entrance of Eataly, 43 W. Ohio St., Chicago.
    Deborah Pankey | Staff Photographer

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To answer the question that has been asked of me most often recently ... Yes, I, finally, have been to Eataly.

And it was awesome.

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On a frigid Friday afternoon, a curt breeze blew me and a few friends into chef Mario Batali's temple to Italian culinary arts at 43 W. Ohio St. just steps off Chicago's Magnificent Mile. Carts of sun-ripened citrus welcomed me and the throngs of other shoppers.

While the orange-clogged celebrity chef certainly is the most recognizable of the partners, New York restaurateurs Joe Bastianich and Lydia Bastianich are part of the group that brought this culinary concept -- originally opened in Turin, Italy -- to New York and now to the Windy City.

I grew more impressed and more overwhelmed with each aisle I walked down. Shelf after shelf of bagged and boxed pastas in never-before-seen shapes, gallon-sized tins of sardines, the glass-enclosed brew room, equipment where you could custom-cure your own meat. What to choose first?

I needed to regain my focus and found ordering a glass of prosecco and a prosciutto and cheese platter helped me do just that. The second floor of Eataly features La Piazza, a sophisticated food court sort of spot where you can pull up a chair at the cheese counter, the oyster bar, the meat counter or at a standing table and order a little something to nosh on. Downstairs, you can grab paninis, gelato and Nutella creations. If you seek further sustenance, La Carne, Il Pesce, Le Verdure and La Pizza & La Pasta are stand-alone restaurants where you check in with a host and wait for a table. Then there's Baffo, Batali's signature fine-dining restaurant where tables are already booked several weeks out. Beginning this week, you can sign up for guided store tours and cooking classes.

So I left with a bag filled with Italian beer, funky-shapped pasta and strawberry-thyme jam. Cheeses, meats and gelato tempted me for sure, but I lacked proper refrigeration that day. Sure it cost me a little bit of money, but it was less expensive than a flight to Italy and I'm already planning a return trip when gelato will be in my basket.

Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at dpankey@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4524. Be fer friend at Facebook.com/DebPankey.DailyHerald or follow her on Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter @PankeysPlate.

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