For three days this winter, I parked myself inside Eataly’s entrance and watched people walk in. Thousands of them. Invariably, what I saw were groups of two, one of whom had a crazy-dazed countenance and a body in the throes of rapture at the place’s preposterous, wonderful excess. Trailing behind was an uninterested partner who’d been dragged along and was appraising the entire 63,000 square feet with one skeptical glance and an expression that said, Oh God, how long is this going to take?

In witnessing people’s undiluted first responses, I hoped to learn something about their expectations for Eataly. If nothing else, what I saw confirmed that the believers and the doubters alike both make up their minds within the first few seconds—long before they have visited any of Eataly’s eight restaurants, its cheese counter or wine shop, the gelateria or two coffee bars, the brewery or bakery or bookstore. This circus, their faces say, is either the greatest thing to happen to Chicago since the invention of the skyscraper or it’s a big bowl of Hades topped with $9 marinara.

They’re both right. Glorious and infuriating in equal measure, Eataly pulled off a stunning opening in December, as you surely heard. During one of the most miserable winters in a city famous for miserable winters, it drew 120,000 visitors in its first week. After a month, the stairs between the first and second floors were more scuffed than an el platform. And the place has succeeded despite the popular opinion that it’s turned 43 East Ohio Street into an overpriced, overcrowded headache.

The ridiculousness starts with the name. The Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti opened the first Eataly in an old vermouth factory in Turin, Italy, in 2007. Twenty-six outlets later, the word Eataly has been spoken so many times from Turkey to Tokyo—and now in River North—that you may have forgotten how silly it is. An Italian superstore called Eataly! That would be like an American food bazaar called United Plates.

Farinetti’s American partners—Mario Batali, Adam and Alex Saper, and Joe and Lidia Bastianich—obviously embrace the name, plastering it (and themselves and their products) all over the two-story urban market, never letting you forget where you are. Where you are is the old ESPN Zone space, only now, instead of Skee-Ball chic, the decor leans to functional industrial: exposed ducts, hanging lights, a giant wheel telling you what’s in season, constant reminders to “Eat Better, Live Better,” and generic quotes from people like Sophia Loren and Ernest Hemingway. Never thought I’d miss the neon-colored air hockey tables.

Funny thing, though. Despite the impersonal vibe, much of Eataly’s food is fresh and sincere and better than most Italian food in Chicago. Many of my best experiences happened at the fish restaurant, Il Pesce, where the special crudo of Spanish mackerel (from the fishmonger about 20 yards away), partnered with little beyond a Meyer lemon, dissolved into a divine memory on my tongue.

Le Verdure, the vegetarian outpost, fared even better, proffering a terrific bruschetta with melty fontina and an egg—an instant fondue party—and a lovely charred scarola topped with currants, pine nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cheers to the gnocchi, four big but tender dumplings baked with semolina and Grana Padano cheese and covered with a showstopping mushroom and garlic ragu. Jeers to the Lurisia Gazzosa, a sparkling lemon drink that Eataly’s staff pushes relentlessly and costs $4.80 for 12 ounces of what tastes like flat Sprite.

La Pizza & La Pasta, the efficiently named restaurant farther back on the second floor, are tougher nuts to crack. One Monday morning, I arrived 15 minutes after Eataly opened, saw 20 people already in line at La Pasta, and thought of Great America when they unlock the gates and everyone sprints to the Batman ride. The Batman ride is never worth the effort. And so it is with Eataly’s Verace, a pizza soupy with olive oil in the Neapolitan style, impeccably crafted with buffalo mozzarella from Campania and peeled San Marzano tomatoes, cooked in a 900-degree gold-tiled wood-burning oven, puffy, blistery . . . and mostly tasteless.

Eataly’s pastas are fresh and expertly made across the board, especially punchy bucatini all’amatriciana with seductive cubes of guanciale and wisps of pecorino. But does it make sense to wait half an hour to eat in a mall where you can get jostled by a shopper searching for a bag of sustainable farro linguine? Not to me.

No one talks much about La Carne, the meat-centric restaurant banished to a remote corner of the second floor past the 80-pound wheels of Grana Padano. (“They bring ’em in on dollies,” the woman behind the counter at La Mozzarella told me.) As for poor La Carne, it’s no great shakes unless you like lukewarm oxtail croquettes. (Look for a review of Baffo, Eataly’s upscale restaurant with a separate entrance away from the hoi polloi, in Chicago’s next issue.)

People love to share their methods for “solving” Eataly, as though it’s some sort of riddle. Most recommend a standing communal table at La Piazza, the second floor’s airy centerpiece approximating a “jovial Italian city square,” where you can order from four different menus (mozzarella, fritto, crudo, and salumi and formaggio) and fetch a craft beer such as a Dogfish Head Midas Touch from Birreria, Eataly’s brewpub. That works fine. Afterward, head downstairs to the dessert counter and grab an honest cannolo or a scoop of impossibly creamy lait gelato, neither of which you’ll regret.

But I’d rather give Le Verdure’s hostess my number and explore until she texts me that my table is ready. That gives me time to choose a glass of 2008 Serralunga d’Alba Barolo from among the 1,000-plus labels in Vino Libero, the wine bar, and wander aisles stocked with squid ink tagliatelle, dark gianduja chocolate bars shaped like Cuban cigars, baby bibs (“Eat Better, Nap Better”), and quail eggs next to moulard duck legs next to ginormous hunks of Hudson Valley foie gras. The fresh produce stand has surprisingly reasonable prices, and an in-house vegetable “butcher” will mince that kale you just bought. A beauty section upstairs includes shampoo and toothpaste, but if you’re looking to Eataly for matters of grooming, you may have other issues.

It’s hard not to feel for the staffers, who look overworked and underslept in their aprons and saggy jeans, but they’re enthusiastic, considering the gluttonous anarchy swirling around them. (Only the beleaguered woman behind the Nutella bar appears a bit wary; you would be too after making your 10,000th crêpe.) Eataly plans to introduce live music and an onsite cooking school, so it doesn’t appear employees can expect relief anytime soon.

Ultimately, Eataly is a spectacle and a boon to Chicago: a benevolent University of Italian Food where you can watch butchers and bakers and fresh pasta makers do their thing, each thrilled to talk details. Though 43 East Ohio Street is not the only place in town for such conversations—Publican Quality Meats, Bari, and Floriole come to mind—it’s the only such place where all those conversations happen under one roof.

But Eataly is also a stressful beast with a claustrophobic, transitory vibe closer to an airport terminal than a market. You’ve got people eating while sitting, standing, leaning, walking, and running, and you’ve got traffic flow problems everywhere. At the top of the escalator, the narrow aisle forces patrons to squeeze through next to the Rosticceria; one errant elbow and you’re going into the rotisserie with the corn-fed Pennsylvania chicken. If I return to Eataly, it’ll be on a quiet weekday.

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows in Birreria one night, I spied Pizzeria Uno across Wabash Street. The place looked a little sad, like old jeans crumpled on the floor of a dressing room when you’re trying on a new pair. But while I was waiting shoulder to shoulder with the Eataly crowd for my artisanal salumi plate and shouting to be heard, Uno also looked strangely tempting. Sometimes it’s the old jeans that really fit.