Eataly is one of the more epic dining experiences in Chicago — with more than 60,000 square feet of Italian goodies, there’s pretty much something for every taste. But I’ve always experienced a sort of bittersweet edge to my shopping there. Since I never remember to go in with a real grocery shopping plan, I use Eataly more as a museum of beautiful food than an actual market. I gaze at the pretty fish on ice and the gorgeous hunks of beef, and maybe leave with some cheese or charcuterie, but all of that abundance is a bit wasted on me — and if it’s wasted on me, someone with a kitchen just a few miles away, what about the tourists? I can’t imagine many people are bringing a 60-ounce tomahawk steak back to their hotel room.
That conundrum — a food market with great fresh ingredients that’s mostly a tourist destination — inspired the newest restaurant concept at Eataly. Called Osteria del Mercato, the space consolidates a couple of previous Eataly concepts. It’s got a great menu of Italian dishes, created by executive chef Will Serafini, but the big draw is that guests can pick any of the cuts of meats or fresh fish from around the store and bring them right to the kitchen.
“We got overwhelming feedback that people wanted to grab things off the shelf and eat them,” Serafini says.
Guests can choose basically anything from the meat or fish counters, and the kitchen will come up with a prep for them on the fly. Serafini doesn’t expect diners to be too cute about it — “No one has asked for a pot roast yet!” — but he’ll do his best to accommodate all requests. If you aren’t sure what to choose, servers can assist you, but if you’re an adventurous diner who sees a new type of fish or cut of meat, this is a great way to give it a try immediately.
As you might imagine, the preparation for these market selections is going to be fairly basic (chefs can’t come up with an entire cookbook of dishes on the fly), but that basic approach will showcase the ingredients. For meat: “Sea salt and extra virgin olive oil, and in the fall and winter, braised beans underneath it.” For fish: “Wilted greens, sea salt, great olive oil, and lemon.”
The market-to-table concept isn’t the only change that’s come to Eataly. There’s been a widespread redesign of the second floor, mostly to take some of the retail out of the eating areas. Fans of Eataly will remember that, for example, pastas and tomato sauces were integrated into the seating area for the pizza and pasta restaurants. This looked cool but in practice made it confusing and difficult to shop. Now, the dining areas are more contiguous, and you won’t have to worry about bumping into diners in the new retail spaces.
Another welcome change: Diners will be able to drink the wines purchased in-store with their meal. Eataly boasts the largest Italian wine selection in the Midwest, with more than 1,200 different wines, and now you can grab one of those bottles off the shelf and take it to your table without having to pay a restaurant markup. There’s a $25 corkage fee, but given that most wine poured in restaurants is marked up by a multiple of four or five, it’s still a pretty good deal.
The new program has taken extra staff training so that Eataly employees can knowledgeably guide customers to new meats and fishes. But Serafini says it’s worth it.
“I think we’re up for the challenge,” he says. “It’s something we’ve always done a good job of here in the store — cooking what we sell — but now we’re really telling people about it.”