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An Eataly survival guide — our tips to navigate the 63,000-square-foot food emporium

Eataly Restaurant Ohio Wednesday November 27th 2013 Chicago. | Gary Middendorf~For Sun-Times Media

Eataly Restaurant on Ohio, Wednesday, November 27th, 2013, in Chicago. | Gary Middendorf~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 30, 2013 11:57AM

At first glance, Eataly is a shiny behemoth of an Italian food market taking up 63,000 square feet of River North retail space where the ill-fated ESPN Zone once stood. On Dec. 2, the doors will open at the much-anticipated store, where the sheer size and magnitude of culinary offerings is impressive, if not daunting — 10,000 products line the shelves next to a slew of meat, cheese, fish and pasta counters, and 23 small eateries including a wine bar and microbrewery.

But the real heart of Eataly is found in its details. Celebrity chef Mario Batali, his business partner Joe Bastianich (he’s the ever-stoic judge on FOX’s “MasterChef”) and other co-owners created Eataly to be a place where shoppers can learn about and taste high-quality Italian food, much of it sourced from local producers. It helps that they’ve done this before. The first American outpost opened in New York in 2010, and the owners said they were able to improve upon the store’s concept and design in the Chicago version.

“It’s a bigger, more evolved, more refined Eataly than New York has,” said Bastianich. “Everything we could have done different in New York, we’ve done it here. We had a chance to do it right in more square footage with more time and more money.” The final tally: $28 million.

If the market sounds a bit overwhelming, it is. To help you navigate the aisles of olive oil and antipasti, we’ve put together an Eataly survival guide. Your mission? To eat, shop and leave satisfied without losing your way or blowing your paycheck.

Head upstairs first

Start your Eataly adventure on the second floor where you will find the bulk of the eateries, wines, olive oils and bookstore. There are also food counters where you can eat and buy freshly made mozzarella, oysters, prosciutto and cheeses. You’ll do the bulk of your tasting and buying up here as you walk between food stations.

But don’t skip downstairs

Save at least few minutes to peruse the kitchen gadgets and gawk at the gelato bar offerings (made in small batches daily) on the first floor. If time permits, take a seat at the Lavazza coffee bar with a treat from the Nutella station — perhaps a cannoli filled with the hazelnut spread?

Eat first, then shop

“We cook what we sell” is Eataly’s mantra, and most ingredients used at the eateries are for sale so you can taste before buying. At-home cooks with questionable skills can get inspired at the pasta station, where cooks boil and toss noodles in full view. Afterward, head to the fresh pasta counter to pick up handmade pasta and grab a jar of sauce to toss with it at home. Presto!

Make friends with the butcher

The butcher can tell you how to prepare different cuts of meat and explain the stories behind the regional farms that produce the meat. The same goes for the fishmonger, the experts behind the cheese counter, the wine bar and everywhere else. In fact, the 650-strong staff is encouraged to tell the stories behind the products.

Choose your pit stop wisely

Tucked away on the northeast corner of the second floor is the espresso bar, ideal for a pick-me-up between courses. It’s out of the way enough that you can sip a strong drink (while standing at the bar, Italian style) in peace. La Piazza, on the other hand, is in the center of the second floor near the mozzarella bar, the raw fish bar and the cured meat counter. Steer clear of this stand-up bar unless you are OK with crowds.

Give lait a chance

Essentially soft-serve gelato, lait is rich and creamy but lighter than the traditional Italian frozen treat. You can find it next to the gelato bar. Ask for the hazelnut flavor.

Cut costs the smart way

Park in the garage across the street at 10 E. Grand St. With a $20 purchase, Eataly will validate parking so the first hour is free. Another freebie? The vegetable butcher. Buy produce and the veggie butcher will chop and prep your goods for no charge. And when the fine-dining restaurant Baffo opens in mid-December, consider eschewing it for dinner at La Carne, a casual eatery designed to appease even the most discerning carnivore.

Eataly Chicago, 43 E. Ohio St.; 312-521-8700; Hours: 8 a.m.-11 p.m. for the first floor, 10 a.m.- 11 p.m.for the second floor.

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