February 1, 2012

Awash in Butter, Cocktails and Style

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Mercato, on a Monday night. Though this restaurant has been open for a year, I nearly passed the tiny entrance. Had I not known, I would have assumed the space was merely an extension of one of its neighbors on North Aurora Street’s restaurant row.

My two foodie friends and I were quickly seated by the window, probably to attract more people into the restaurant. The strategy worked: We were soon followed by three college-aged girls toting giant backpacks. The girls sat at the bar, spending the rest of the evening guzzling wine and drooling over the decidedly attractive bartender — Mercato has room for all kinds of customers.

Our waitress was open and bubbly, freely offering her opinions about which cocktails were delicious (the Credo) and which could be skipped (Corpse Reviver  No. 2). Her honesty certainly matched the atmosphere of the restaurant itself. The only decoration in the restaurant’s tiny open kitchen consisted of two cans of imported Roma tomatoes and one bottle of olive oil. The vibe was similar to that of a hotel room: You may not be in a spacious abode, but there’s a palatable comfort of knowing that you have everything you need — and nothing more. And in a sea of restaurants that try too hard, that kind of simplicity is refreshing.

To start the evening, my motley foodie crew and I ordered a sampling of what looked like very artfully crafted cocktails. My Credo — at the waitress’s recommendation, of course — was a vigorously-shaken mix of Seneca Drums Gin, St. Germaine, white wine, lemon juice and basil. The drink was beautiful, speckled with little flecks of basil. Had I been on a date, Murphy’s law dictates that they would have almost certainly gotten stuck in my teeth. The drink was cool, almost like a chilled soup, but one which your heavy drinking grandmother would approve.

My friend tried the Rubato, which arrived in a small, old-fashioned glass with one singular, enormous ice cube in the center. As mixology gurus know, this cube denotes a thoughtful bartender. Because a single cube has less surface area than multiple ice chunks, melting is minimized, preventing a watered-down cocktail. For anyone else, frozen mass risks being scorned as a waste of valuable space in the glass that could otherwise be filled with more cocktail. Luckily, we knew better.

To accompany the drinks, we settled on the crostini sampler. Crostini makes up the bulk of Mercato’s appetizer menu, which may seem a little redundant following the basket of exquisitely baked bread that you are provided with almost as soon as you sit down. But I assure you, these crostini are something else entirely. The sampler arrived disappointingly small; three pieces of crostini were cut in half, producing portions small enough for a single bite if your mouth is especially spacious. But the small size has a purpose: The toppings on the exquisitely crisped bread were so incredibly rich that more than two bites would probably send you into cardiac arrest. The mortadella crostini was smooth and buttery, while the chicken liver, topped with lightly pickled onions, was divine. Even if you do not love chicken liver — or any liver — this bite will make you a believer. The taleggio and sun dried tomato crostini, on the other hand, was nothing to write home about: I could almost certainly have replicated the dish with a wedge of laughing cow cheese and a bottle of sun dried tomato paste.

By this point we were well lubricated with cocktails and buttery bread and our dinner, arriving almost as soon as our waitress retired our appetizer plates, was well received.

My short rib gnocchi was fine, but not life-changing. The seasoning of the dish was decidedly one-noted. The whole dish frankly tasted as one might expect short rib to taste — yummy, certainly, but ordinary short ribs nonetheless. Still, I can appreciate the thought that went into the preparation. The gnocchi were not as pillow-y as they might have been if they had been bolstered with extra semolina, perhaps, to carry the strong, fatty flavors of the short rib. But every once in a while, my plate yielded a bite of refreshingly soft, if overcooked, gnocchi, providing a welcome change.

The black pepper tagliatelle, conveniently placed on my friend’s plate less than 10 inches from my fork, was possibly the best thing I ate all night — and have ever eaten in Ithaca. The plate was a revelation: salty, fatty pancetta, complimented by sweet, caramelized parsnips and bathed in butter sauce. And despite this combination of pungent flavor profiles, the dish reminded me less of a creamy, overwhelming plate and more of a broth-y alternative. Perhaps it was my mind telling me the dish was healthier than it actually is; my thighs will tell tomorrow. My only complaint was that though the pepper was clearly visible in the noodles, its flavor profile was lost in the dish. An extra grind or two on top would have been welcome.

Eager to sample some meat, I reached across the table and attacked my roommate’s choice, the chicken picatta. Pounded and floured, the chicken was impossibly tender. Paired with traditional lemon-caper sauce, the plate showcased how transcendent an otherwise ordinary Italian-American dish can be when in the right hands. The dish came with that evening’s vegetable, shaved Brussels sprouts sautéed in duck fat. If you’ve sworn off Brussels sprouts after a lifetime of miserable Thanksgiving dinners, I guarantee that after you try them sautéed in duck fat, you will be converted for life.

­Almost as quickly as we came in, we were ushered back out. The quick dinner service may have been a testament to the fact that we were only the restaurant’s fourth party, besides an attractive older man in a tweed three-piece suit sitting at the bar, a quartet of Ithacans and our famous, flirtatious, threesome of college students.  Which shows that Mercato, despite its small square footage, really has space for every kind of eater. And while its $30-a-meal price tag will definitely relegate this restaurant to the “once-in-a-while” spot on my repertoire, it is nonetheless a memorable treat.

Original Author: Cristina Stiller