Unassuming Digs, Great Food.
From the outside, you may easily walk by Mercato. The small restaurant is nestled on an unassuming corner in Washington Square West, not exactly calling out to passerbys. Don’t think, though, that this exterior modesty at all reflects the “new Italian–American” cuisine prepared inside. Early on a Friday night, the tables were packed, the BYOB wine was flowing and the food was delicious. It was as if one had invaded an Italian family reunion with some really good cooks, which is certainly not a bad place to be.
Instead of a single waiter assigned to a table, a team of servers presides over the entire restaurant, constantly pouring water and taking orders. There is both the rather extensive traditional menu, with appetizers, pastas and entrees, and an entirely separate antipasti menu, with cured meats and cheeses and a full olive oil list. Sharing is encouraged, and the kitchen is happy to make half portions of any of the pasta dishes as well.
The servers bring by crusty bread and a delicious homemade olive butter. It’s difficult not to ask for seconds, but the waitress warns that the portions are “hearty,” so it’s time to order. Before any food arrives, a metal mixing bowl appears in the center of the table sans explanation.
Minutes later, however, the shared appetizer, the Whole Grilled Artichoke ($12), arrived. Although a better explanation of how exactly to tackle this dish would have been appreciated, it was delicious nonetheless. The creaminess of the accompanying citrus aioli perfectly offset the smokiness of the artichoke, making this labor–intensive dish absolutely worthwhile.
There was a long delay before the pasta dishes arrived, and with no assigned waiter and a packed house, there was little to do but wait. The Autumn Vegetable Risotto ($16) came first, followed moments later by the Short Rib Ragu ($23). Both were half portions, thus half price, but there was more than enough to split between two people.
The risotto was excellent, cooked perfectly and smothered in Parmesan. The vegetables, a mix of crimini mushrooms, squash and leeks, were well balanced and seasoned. The ragu, a bowl of ricotta gnocchi and broccoli rabe covered in the hearty sauce, was tasty but not without flaws. The pillowy gnocchi was delicious on its own, but topped with the rich ragu, it was completely overpowered.
The broccoli rabe was also tasty, but it sat in a pile underneath the pasta and sauce, like it was trying to hide. Individually, each component was great, but together they were out of sync.
Another long wait broke up the pasta and entree courses, but the sheer size of the portions that eventually arrived quickly erased any ill feelings. Unfortunately, the grilled petit tender filet ($25) wasn’t even the star of it’s own plate. That honor went to the awesome side of brussel sprouts and bacon, which easily trumped the ordinary steak and mashed potatoes. The tilapia special ($30) was a much more harmonious dish. The perfectly cooked fish sat alongside refreshing grilled asparagus and a sweet potato mash that might have been the highlight of the evening.
Considering the sheer amount of food consumed, dessert wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but one shared plate was the perfect end to the meal. The Bittersweet Molten Chocolate Cake ($9) was a difficult choice on a tantalizing menu, but it was a winner. Gooey and dense, a few bites would have been perfect, but the whole thing was too good to resist.
It’s clear that the focus of Mercato is squarely on the food. The space is basic, and the service is somewhat inconsistent, but the cuisine was, for the most part, fantastic. With far more hits than misses, Mercato is perfect for a special occasion.
1216 Spruce St.
Don’t Miss: Delicious pastas and vegetables
Skip: If you want a quick meal