A restaurant can't be all things to all people, but that doesn't stop enterprising restaurateurs from trying. Exhibit A: Mercato. Viewed from various angles, it could be considered a gelateria, deli, café, pizzeria, or swanky date-night pasta joint. Viewed as a whole, Mercato is an atmospheric mess, which is unfortunate because, with few exceptions, the food is actually quite good.
It's sad to think someone decided a wall of hi-def flatscreens flashing food photos and smiling chefs would ingratiate Mercato to diners. It doesn't. Neither does the gelato-chic décor with its candy-colored plastic chairs. The space is loud, bland, and confusing. They would have been better off with half the square footage and a handful of tables and tasteful banquettes—a place where the food could speak for itself.
Mercato functions adequately as a neighborhood lunch spot, despite puzzling service. Orders are taken at the register and patrons are given a number, cafeteria-style. This isn't intuitive. There's a tendency for people to mill about or wait fruitlessly for an overworked server to take their order.
The robust lunch menu, with a large selection of salads, paninis, and pastas, almost overwhelms with choices. Rest assured, most options are generous and well presented. The spinach salad is a tumble of dark green leaves and grilled pears with light, crunchy rounds of pancetta. The Fontina e Prosciutto panini is filling, with imported prosciutto set against fontina cheese and tangy preserved peppers. The use of baguette makes this sandwich interesting—it's split down the center and essentially turned inside out, so that the crumb is on the outside and the crust is in the center. This allows for a nicely grilled sandwich with an interesting internal textural element provided by the crust.
I'd advise diners to avoid Mercato's pizza. On a recent lunch visit, the picante pizza was thin and limp. The crust lacked crackle, and even though it was topped with flavorful pancetta, the 13-inch pie was thoroughly disappointing. There are better pizza options close at hand.
Dinner is a different affair at Mercato. The pasta and entrée selections are fine and the table service exceptional, but the dining room can't shake the cafeteria feel, even with candles twinkling on the tables. I'd suggest sitting outside—the surrounding Pearl neighborhood provides a much more enjoyable environment.
On a recent summer evening at a sidewalk table, it was very easy to enjoy a special appetizer of puff pastry, gorgonzola, shrimp, and oyster mushrooms. The rich and saucy mélange, with big mushroom flavor, worked very well with ethereal puff pastry. It was devoured silently, without hesitation. The meal only got better. The Saltimbocca di Pollo tasted like a fine chicken sausage, a flavor lent to the dish by wrapping flattened chicken breast around proscuitto and fontina. The accompanying polenta paled in comparison. The Spaghetti alla Carbonara was also good; egg yolks create a rich base for the sauce, and chunks of pancetta and shallots are tossed liberally throughout the pasta.
It's nice that Mercato offers gelato. The flavors aren't necessarily creative, but a strong strawberry gelato is a wonderful exclamation point to any meal.
In the end, Mercato serves as an example for those looking to get into the restaurant business: Maybe it's better to try and please some of the people all of the time.