Mario Batali may be the most celebrated Italian restaurant chef in America at the moment. He's unquestionably the most recognizable—imposingly big, bookended by orange hair at one end and his trademark orange clogs at the other end, equally trademark vest in between. Having established his image visually, not to mention staring back at you from more than a few products around the store, he takes the Batali brand lightly in person, talking sincerely and approachably about what you discover in good Italian food—he calls it a "Holy Jeez" moment—and how the massive new Eataly Chicago is going to bring that into your life.
Though he's known for his restaurants in New York, including Babbo and Lupa, Batali also has given himself midwestern roots in Traverse City, Michigan. And talking to him, you find him earnest to convey that Eataly doesn't want to be an interloper, but a food vendor with its own sense of being grounded in the region—not one that wipes out what already exists here through its size and buying power.
Michael Gebert: This is such a huge undertaking. How do you run a dozen restaurants well, all at once?
Mario Batali: What you need is a staff of about 700 people, 690 of whom are geniuses. And the remaining ten are going to be geniuses.
We're in a city that has a certain amount of Italian food culture. What are you bringing to that that's going to change people's lives?
I don't think we're going to change people's lives, but what I think we may do at best is enhance them. I think when people have their 'holy jeez!' moment while traveling in Italy, what they often realize at that very second is that simpler can actually be better. And when you have a simple dish of pasta with just cacio e pepe [cheese and pepper], you're like, 'Wow, they didn't do a lot of work on this dish, but it's the most satisfying dish I'll have.'
The 'holy jeez' moments are always less than more. I mean, lasagna takes a lot of work and it's a great dish, there's no question about it. But when you have a spaghetti pomodoro, you go, I can't believe how delicious it is. And that's because there isn't very much sauce on it—the essence of pasta is the noodle itself, and everything else should be like salad dressing. So when we have it that pure and that fine, it's cause for joy.
If we can remind Chicagoans that the nature of Italian food is more simple than complicated, then that's our job. If we can create a place where people can congregate and enjoy and have the experience of an Italian tiny little town, and go and have an espresso in the morning and a panino in the afternoon and maybe a gelato on their way home—if they use this more like a town than a store, then we'll have achieved our goal.
When we opened in New York it was worrisome to many of the owners and purveyors of Italian food, whether it was in a specialty salami shop or a submarine shop or even in an Italian restaurant. And I think that what we bring is a kind of heightened awareness of the greatness of the Italian culture, and the Italian-American culture. And they should not be worried. We are here in their support. What people are going to do, they'll come here and they'll eat here, and then they'll go back to their favorite Italian joint and think, look at what they do a little different there, but I still love you guys. No one's going to walk away from all the stuff they've been enjoying. It just adds an augmented potential to their experience, and that's what we're here to do. We're not here to take customers from a single person. We're here to share in the joy of the Italian facility with deliciousness, and make it part of the Chicago landscape. We want to be here.
Now, I understand that you're a part-time midwesterner, in Traverse City, Michigan—
Here's the story. We started going there about 12 years ago, my wife went to U. of M. We went there, visiting some friends whose parents had actually retired and gotten little cottages on the lake. We went one week the first year, two weeks the second year, three weeks the third year, and the fourth year we said, Can we have it for the summer, and the guy said, No, I'm actually moving back in. So we looked around and we found a place that we could buy, and we've been coming here ever since.
For me, it's the antidote to living in New York City, coming to the midwest. Being in a small town on the lake, where there's only one traffic light in the entire county where we live, and it flashes yellow, there's no worry that you're in the right spot or the wrong spot, there's no worry that something may happen to somebody—it's just pure Americana out of the books. There's no tension up there—OK, maybe there is, but it's certainly not as evident as it is in New York every waking moment.
So how has being a part-time midwesterner informed a midwestern Eataly, versus the New York one?
Well, in the same sense that in New York, we buy all of our dairy, eggs and cheeses from local purveyors. And we're doing the same thing here. There's a vast wealth of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana products that are remarkable, and we've tasted them with our cheesemongers and they've made the cut, so there will be a domestic component to this.
But primarily the ingredients of a dry nature are imported from Italy, and what you'll see here is that we have exclusives. So there is stuff that only we’ll have in America. And midwesterners, I think, will appreciate that because as they come here they will realize this is a unique spot to come shop because you can't get Afeltra pasta anywhere else. We're going to hand make mozzarella from local milk, but we're going to do it like they do in Naples. So it will be a remarkably delicious, slightly tangy, mostly soft mozzarella like you find in Naples, but not exactly like they have in Naples, because their cows are from a different breed and eat different things.
So we celebrate the localness of all of the stuff that we can get, but in the Italian way.
What's more important to being an Italian restaurant, being more Italian or being more local in America?
I think that when you talk to an Italian about what's delicious, and they're from, say, the Veneto, they would never say to buy something from Puglia. Because they're so proudly identified with their region. And for them the best smell is the way it smells when you walk through the closest apple orchard, or the closest dairy that's making ricotta, or even cottage cheese, for that matter. And what we're going to do is to take that Italian sensibility, and we're going to use as much of the domestic product from this region right here, and we're going to do it like the Italians do it.
The Italians don't have the opportunity to do walleye. They don't even know what a walleye is. But it's an amazing fish when you taste it, even if it's just in a fish boil. That we're going to do it Italian style means that we're celebrating the two coming together. But when you have walleye and it's going to be served in a fried restaurant [i.e., Fritto], just in little pieces, with little pieces of shaved zucchini and garlic chips. It's going to blow people away. They're going to recognize the walleye, they're going to recognize the Italian-ness of it, and they're not going to say, 'Oh, this isn't right, this isn't authentic Michigan, this isn't authentic Chicago.' But it is. This is it.
Speaking of blowing people away, that was actually the question I asked your partners, so I'll ask you, too. If someone came here, where would you send them first to get blown away?
Well, they're going to come in downstairs, so first I would just have them go have an espresso macchiato, or a Shakerato, which is a chilled, shaken espresso with a little bit of almond or almond syrup. Once you start like that, you're already in the right spot. Having a perfect cappuccino—which by the way doesn't come in a venti, it comes in a small cup of about four to six ounces, and the milk isn't steaming burning hot and it's thick but it isn't so thick that you could draw sculpture out of it—you start with something like that. Then you go over to the Nutella counter, and you get a little sfogliatelle with a little Nutella spread on it—I think you should be feeling whatever it is now, whether you're seeing trails from your fingers or just that the joy is right.
You'll shop around in the vegetable area, you'll see that there's a vegetable butcher there, and you've always been a little worried about artichokes, but our vegetable butcher will prepare them for you, and all you have to do is take them home. We'll trim, we'll chop, we'll do all of that.
You'll see all of the confections and stuff like that, and then you'll see that, holy moly, there's another floor. There's only like 10,000 square feet downstairs, and there's another 42,000 square feet upstairs. And when you get up here you'll know what it feels like to be embraced by the Italian culture.
If you're going to have just one bite, maybe you go to the pasta restaurant and have cacio e pepe, with sheep's milk cheese. Or you'll go to the pesce and have two oysters and a glass of prosecco. It's for every level of expenditure, every level of time constraint. You can come and be Italian for an hour. It feels like you went on vacation.
Eataly Chicago, 43 E. Ohio, 312-521-8700, eataly.com