February 12, 2014

Mercato Bar and Kitchen: Love at First Taste

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The Italian-inspired Mercato Bar and Kitchen first opened on the Ithaca Commons in late 2010 and has since merged seamlessly into the competitive Ithaca dining scene. Its neighbors on Ithaca’s so-called “Restaurant Row”—Just a Taste, Simeon’s and Mahogany Grill —may form an intimidating lineup, but Mercato more than holds its own amongst its gourmet companions. In fact, this small restaurant, with its creative handling of Italian classics and an unwavering attention to detail, has proven itself a force to be reckoned with.

Mercato presents itself as such from the moment you enter, as the restaurant’s detail-oriented nature begins and ends with the interior. Colorful specials are neatly printed on a chalkboard above the bar, and Italian nouveau art imbues a timeless dimension to the space. The restaurant’s footprint, though narrow, is lined with happily spacious booths, and small spotlights from above illuminate each table like a stage, readying the customer for an evening of attractive presentations. The building’s clean lines (and floors) orient the customer’s attention to the beautiful Italian cuisine that he or she is about to consume.

The restaurant proudly announces that it is both “bar” and “kitchen,” and both facets are equally imaginative. At the bar, unique ingredients make for a cocktail selection that is intriguing and delicious. I opted to try one of the evening’s specials—nicknamed Blood and Sand—which featured scotch, cherry liqueur, vermouth and blood orange juice in a sweet blend. The wine menu, about which the wait staff seems fairly knowledgeable, is also quite impressive, featuring many reds, whites and sparklers from Italy and the Finger Lakes.

The kitchen of Mercato is quite possibly more impressive, boasting mouth-watering prospects and an ingenuity that many Italian restaurants lack. You might not find chicken parmesan here, but rather some twist on an old favorite. And though the entrée selection seems somewhat limited, it is certainly to no fault, as each choice offers a unique appeal. Even with just eight options, I found making my decision to be very difficult. Afterall, when a mushroom-and-goat-cheese cappelletti, gnocchi with oxtail ragu and porkshoulder over creamy polenta share a menu, choosing is bound to be problematic. The menu is seasonal, so although the selection may seem slight, a repeat visit at a later date almost guarantees a new roster. Unfortunately, most options are not vegetarian-or-vegan-friendly, so be sure to inquire about even seemingly “safe” dishes.

Before diving into the main course, my party and I warmed up our taste buds with fresh baked bread and a pleasant mortadella mousse crostini from the appetizer menu. The crostini were small, and there were only four, which made a three-way split slightly challenging, but they excellently combined sweet with savory and fluff with crunch. Finally, after much deliberating, we ordered the gnocchi with oxtail, the pork shoulder and a black pepper fettuccini that contained a cut of meat I was not even aware of (guanciale is a sumptuous bacon-like meat from the pig’s jaw, and it is simply delicious). The gnocchi was perfectly tender and puffy and was mixed with savory chunks of oxtail; the buttery fettuccine was baked with pepper inside of it, demonstrating the lengths that this restaurant will go for its food. The sweet pork shoulder competed beautifully with the cheesy polenta it lay upon, and the caramelized onions and tomato sauce that had been spooned atop offered complex punches of tang; it was honestly one of the best courses I’ve eaten in a long, long time. Finally, we finished up with a nice chocolate pot de crème that, while not overwhelmingly good, was a delicious conclusion to our meal.

Mercato is a fine establishment with unique food and delectable drinks. The prices are high but not mind-boggling— expect to pay $30 to $50 per person, especially since some of the entrées are smaller and should be paired with appetizers—and the service was very friendly and competent; in fact, my one complaint was that our waitress refilled our waters a bit too frequently. Overall, I found my journey through Mercato’s seemingly endless parade of delights to be a rather sensual experience. Each dish was extremely attractive, with nary a noodle out of place or a pistachio askew. Every smell and taste delighted, and every crack and pop of chewed meat resounded throughout my mouth. The lighting warm and romantic, myself a bit tipsy from the cocktail, I began to feel myself falling for the pork shoulder before me. As the meal progressed I began to whisper it sweet nothings, and it returned the favor with a luscious smack. I think I’m in love, and I’m already looking forward to a second date.