Restaurant Review: Mercato

For our second Restaurant Week outing, we headed to Mercato in the Washington Square neighborhood. Located in what used to be a “corner store” (as we say in South Philly), the restaurant is a cash-only, BYOB, featuring a regularly changing menu of contemporary takes on traditional Italian dishes.

The entire menu was available at the $35 Restaurant Week pricing, so there were plenty of options to choose from. Additionally, there was a separate menu featuring Italian meats, cheeses and a selection of olive oils, which was available to choose from as a substitute for a first course.

For an appetizer, I ordered the roasted portabella, which was topped with pecorino cheese and wrapped in a puff pastry. It was tasty, but there was way more pastry than filling, which was somewhat disappointing. It was accompanied by an arugula salad,  topped with a simple, citrus/thyme dressing and pine nuts. Chester had the whole grilled artichoke, which was also just so-so. It was on the small side and kind of fibrous, instead of meaty and tender. I also didn’t enjoy the smoky flavor, although it was better when dipped in the side of citrus aioli.

All in all, we were a bit underwhelmed by our first courses, and I became a bit nervous that the rest of the meal would be a disappointment as well. Luckily, things did improve from there.

For an entrée, I had the short rib ragu, with gnocchi, broccoli rabe and locatelli. Although the pasta was billed as ricotta gnocchi, they didn’t really have that much of a flavor and were a bit more dense than some other versions that I have had. But, I was able to overlook that since the ragu was exceptional. The locatelli melted slightly over the dish and its sharp flavor  complemented the earthy, red-wine infused sauce well. The short ribs were perfectly prepared and came apart easily with a fork. Chester’s veal cutlets were prepared in a simple white wine sauce, but were tender and flavorful. There were plenty of veggies on the dish as well–a topping of roasted red peppers, olives and spinach, and sides of asparagus and roasted potatoes–which I liked.

For dessert, I had the chocolate cake, with a warm, liquid center that reminded me of melted Nutella. A scoop of vanilla ice cream minimized some of the richness. Even Chester enjoyed dessert—a very light, marscapone cheesecake with walnut shortbread crumbs sprinkled on top.

With the exception of pre-theater, holiday, and Restaurant Week dinners, Mercato normally does not take reservations. And, from what I have read, the tiny space tends to fill up very quickly on regular business days. Just be aware that if you do make a reservation during one of these times, you will need to provide a credit card to hold the spot, and will be charged $25 per person in your party if you fail to cancel.

Mercato was definitely one of the most cramped and noisiest places I’ve been to in awhile. And, since we were seated in a corner table right near the kitchen, it was quite warm. I was definitely ready to leave by the end of the meal. Although I enjoyed the food and the portions were generous, it wasn’t so spectacular that I would feel compelled to go back again and brave a two hour wait for a table.

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