Last weekend I was in Chicago for BlogHer Food ’15. They kept us busy with keynotes and breakouts and meals and sponsors, all on the Gold level of the downtown Hyatt, which was nice enough – but underground. So chances to actually see Chicago (or the sky!) were few.
One chance came on Saturday with the lunchtime excursion to Eataly, a gigantic two-level store filled with Italian specialty groceries and eateries. It’s an international chain; there are 16 stores in Italy and 11 in Japan, but just two in the United States. I’d visited the one in New York, which was incredible but overwhelming.
On the bus I sat next to Cara from the blog Homemade Italian Cooking. She’s a Chicago local and regular Eataly shopper. We had a great chat about pasta – the thing she said I should buy if I could only get one thing at Eataly. We also talked dreamily of porchetta, the incredible Italian take on pork roast, and she told me about an awesome-sounding Asian version she made that she couldn’t put on her blog because it didn’t work with the theme. (It made me glad my theme is just stuff I love.)
Then we disembarked the bus and I was on my own. That was kind of a blessing, I think, because the place was packed. I wasn’t there to buy groceries – my bags were going to be way too full on the flight home anyway. (So much swag!) I was there to have a fabulous lunch, and it would clearly be quite a wait for a table at any of the in-store restaurants.
Most of the restaurant seating, however, was at counters. They were pretty packed as well, but there were a few spots where an eagle-eyed singleton could snag an empty seat. After looking around at the various options, I grabbed a stool at the end of the counter for Osteria di Eataly, right next to the food pass-through, so I would be able to see all the yummy dishes go out.
It wasn’t long before I was set up with a glass of water, a dish of olive oil, and a little paper packet of bread. The bread, which was almost the exact same color as the brown paper it was wrapped in, was wonderful: crackly-crusted outside, soft within, and very flavorful. I enjoyed a few bites while listening to the cheerful waiter explaining the day’s specials to the group of three men next to me at the counter. They ordered, and the waiter moved on to me.
Derrick was the waiter’s name. He had a great smile, and a manner that put me at ease and made me feel right at home. I rarely eat a nice meal by myself; when I eat alone I get simple food and always bring a book, so I would have felt awkward without Derrick’s great tableside manner. I asked him what the bruschetta of the day was – whipped lardo topped with arugula. Lardo is pretty much what it sounds like, cured pork fatback. You don’t see it much (ever?) in Albuquerque, so I ordered it. Then I asked whether I should get the potato-stuffed agnolotti with pancetta and chive butter or the spinach tagliatelle with lamb ragu. He didn’t hesitate: the tagliatelle. So I ordered that.
I sat for a bit, enjoying the bread and watching food emerge from the pass-through. Two plates of gorgeously roasted brussels sprouts passed by among the dishes of pasta. Soon Derrick arrived with my bruschetta; the lardo just peeked through from under a mountain of lightly dressed arugula.
“You sure you don’t want any wine?” he asked me.
“Yes, thank you… but I think I need a plate of those Brussels sprouts.”
Derrick grinned and told me he would take care of it.
I ate about half the arugula off my bruschetta before starting on the bread with its glistening spread of lardo. I didn’t want the other flavors overwhelmed by arugula. Besides, it made a nice little starter salad – crisp, tangy, slicked with just the right amount of oil. Once I got to them, the bruschetta were delicious and rich, though the lardo itself was less flavorful than I remembered from the other times I’ve tried it. As I ate, my neighbor started chatting with me. He and his friend were in Chicago from Minnesota visiting a third friend. They were all really nice folks who seemed to genuinely enjoy talking with me about themselves and me and blogging and food. I really enjoyed their company.
I had just a bite or two of bruschetta left when my Brussels sprouts and pasta came out. They were both beautiful. The sprouts were perfectly charred, with just the right amount of tenderness and chew at the core – a balance many places don’t achieve – and a little sweet-sour tang that I think came from a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The pasta was perfectly al dente, not too chewy, with lots of meltingly tender lamb in a deceptively simple sauce with just a hint of rosemary.
I just enjoyed it, taking my time, reversing my initial decision not to get more cheese grated on top. (It was really good cheese.) Derrick came by several times. “Still doing great?” he asked. I was. My countermates chuckled at how my food had come out first but they were done eating long before me. “She has to analyze everything for her blog,” one of them said. Not far wrong. But more, I was just enjoying every bite, watching the cooks tossing and plating and wordlessly communicating, and I was in no hurry to be done.
At one point I realized there were no giant pots of water bubbling away on the cooktop, like they have at the Talin Pop-Up Dumpling Shop. Where was the cooked pasta coming from? After some peering about, I realized they were cooking the pasta in an oven-sized appliance that looked a lot like a deep fryer, but with smallish round baskets instead of a fryer’s long rectangular ones. I’d never thought about that before: how to make large quantities of pasta at once but in individual servings and of many different kinds. Among the types they were cooking was squid-ink pasta, which is black and would surely stain the other pastas before long, so the system must have included constant filtration. Pretty cool.
Eventually, though, I could eat no more. Regretfully, I left a double handful of pasta in the bowl and declared myself finished. Derrick asked me if I wanted a box, but no – there was no refrigerator in my hotel. And, alas, I had no room for dessert. I’m sure it would have been excellent.
I wandered around a little bit, checking out the vast selection of pastas (all with the distinctive rough texture of the really good stuff) but deciding I just couldn’t pack any. I ogled the enormous cheese counter – oh my lord, the cheese counter! – and then discovered that there were also banks of refrigerators with even more cheese. I deeply regretted having no cold storage at my hotel. I went downstairs and looked at the cool kitchen gadgets and the selection of Alessi housewares. I toyed with the idea of buying a shiny red napkin holder, then abandoned it when I saw the purchasing line snaking all around the edge of the store. There was nothing I needed that was worth standing in that line!
So, full and happy, I walked out into the crisp November day to enjoy the breeze and the sunshine as I walked back to the hotel.