(Chicago, IL) — Since Eataly Chicago opened last year, they’ve tweaked their format slightly, learning about the whims and predilections of their visitors and making changes in savvy ways. La Carne, for instance, used to house a much bigger space but has been relegated to part of the open-air piazza. Likewise, Baffo had been a dinner only venue but recently started serving lunch. As luck would have it, we’re free for lunch on this Sunday so gather up some friends to try this somewhat hidden eatery...

He Fed:

I’m a little nervous. Baffo has always seemed like the “fancy” restaurant in Eataly, so I’m expecting a high-end menu and stilted service. Cookie and LettersToJ are here with us, as is Mrs. Hoodie. We’ve been shopping upstairs in the retail space for a bit, but have worked up a mean hunger.

As expected, the space is filled with leather upholstery, dark wood, and white linen tablecloths, all exuding a refined yet casual atmosphere with a view to the partially open kitchen. A long bar stretches in one corner, looking out onto the street and seeming like a very comfortable place to enjoy a glass of red wine while tenderly stroking a lover’s hand.

We’re shown to a table that’s partially booth seating—my favorite kind, since you can either choose a stiff-backed chair or lounge on a sofa cushion. Almost everyone opts for a bloody mary; who am I to argue? Spicy, salty and slightly sweet, the tall iced drink comes adorned with a long skewer of pickled veggies and sausage. It’s the perfect pick-me-up after our lengthy visit to Lagunitas the previous day. Although this is more of a “brunch” refreshment, I still manage to polish it off in no time.

The pared-down lunch menu offers typical antipasti, primi, secondi, and contorni courses or a prix fixe menu for only $29 (plus $18 for wine pairings, if you’re so inclined). Not too shabby! After last night’s stellar multi-course adventure at North Pond, however, I opt to forego the prix fixe for two simple courses instead.

First, the polpo alla piastra ($18). It’s a gorgeous shallow bowl of charred octopus on a bed of marinated borlotti beans, drizzled with spicy limoncello vinaigrette and mixed with some olive oil to give the resulting “lake” a neon green glow. It’s one of the most gorgeous platings I’ve ever seen. The tentacles are tender and sweet with no bounce-back or fishy taste. I would kill to be able to cook octopus like this, never mind the brilliance of matching polpo with firm white beans and adding that tangy pop of lemon. Wowser. Worth every penny, and I happily share it around the table for others to try.

For my primi, I choose the simply titled gnocchi ($17). These little dumplings are tossed with a braised oxtail ragu with just a few herbs to lend a splash of verdure. Oh, bite is a fluffy pillow encased in silky, meaty sauce. Perfect preparation with well-balanced flavors. I’ve never had gnocchi that light and airy. And even though oxtail tends to be fatty, and restaurants often try to disguise it with a tannic red wine reduction, none of those are apparent here. For once, I finish every bite of what is ordinarily a very rich dish, yet I’m still wanting more.

There are some issues with service. Our waiter brings two courses to Cookie, when she clearly wanted three. For my part, after a double espresso, I am more than content. Next time we visit (as if I needed another reason to visit Eataly on a regular basis), I’ll be tempted to explore the dinner menu.

She Fed:

Our foursome opts for Sunday brunch at Baffo, Eataly’s fine dining restaurant. I know we’d be just as happy parked at Birreria munching on small plates and swigging unique brews, but I’m looking forward to one last elegant meal to top off our foodie weekend in Chicago. Even better, the other Karla-with-a-K can join us today.

I expected last night’s dining extravaganza would have slowed us down today. A multi-course dinner with wine pairings at North Pond with a few delicious surprises thrown in by the incomparable Chef Bruce Sherman kept us out much too late. We might have been tempted to hit snooze a few times, but here we are—right on time in the lobby ready to walk a few blocks to brunch. We’ve even got time to spare and poke around Eataly a bit before heading down to Baffo.

It’s quiet and serene; a definite change of pace from the chaos of weekend shoppers and tourists upstairs. (After six visits to Eataly, I’m no longer a tourist, right?) Our waiter is great fun with a quick wit. So fun in fact that we invite him to sit with us a few times throughout the meal. For brunch, Baffo features a prix fixe menu with three courses including dessert and a separate menu from which you can order freestyle. Our table debates the merits of each option at length. This is the challenge with a five-top of food and wine lovers: it can take forever to decide who’s ordering what!

I decide to start with the Ricotta Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms. The blossoms are lightly battered and fried. The ricotta is filling is rich and decadent. Although I’m a sucker for anything cheese-filled, deep fry it and you’ve gilded the lily for me. It’s all so good, I even eat the little fresh tomato slices on the side and you all know how much I despise fresh tomatoes.

Next, I go for the Pasta with Roasted Eggplant Sauce. The simple tomato sauce and eggplant chunks are complemented with chunks of gooey fresh mozzarella and julienned basil. Is there anything better than fresh basil with a uncomplicated tomato sauce?

While others debate their third course, I seriously consider just ordering a second helping of the pasta. Or maybe another pasta. But something meatier sounds good today and I choose the Pork Chop with Broccoli Rabe. The bitter greens with the succulent fatty chop make a perfect pairing. I love that verdant, almost acrid taste of certain greens and these are divine. The chop is garnished with a gorgeous pile of herbaceous celery greens and a few pucker-inducing pickled tomatoes. I’m tempted to pick up the chop bone and gnaw it at the end of the meal but I don’t...though I think even Mario might approve.

After a weekend of decadence, we are ready to bid Chicago a fond adieu. Time to go home, eat clean, and cut back on the wine-soaked dinners. Until Eataly beckons again that is.

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