Amidst a busy service of hungry noon hour diners there is hardly an empty table at Mercatto's Toronto Street location. In this economy, one may assume that serious eaters are grappling with the negative effects thrift spending has to the their noon hour budgets. Clearly, pasta is recession kryptonite, because all I'm seeing is a procession of pizzas, pastas and coffees making their way to each hungry diner.
Admittedly, I often overlooked Mercatto. I saw it little more than a local chain of It
alian restaurants who catered to a captive downtown business clientel. As a food snob, I exulted that the only place in Toronto to eat Italian was La Bruschetta, although, now I must make an amendment.
Mercatto's is a crisp designed casual Italian eatery catering to contemporary urbanites. The restaurant boasts three areas: the coffee bar (open at 7am), the take away counter and the main dining room. An air of rustic Italian sophistication radiates after a recent renovation lead by Alessandro Munge of Munge Leung. Wood floors and crisp white walls offsetting sage coloured seats and a homey, long stretching communal table - it's charming!
Once seated I am met with one server after another, attentive and friendly in a manner often only reserved for higher end restaurants. I can't help but wonder if that is service reserved for me, a lone and exposed food writer. It appeared to be consistent with the remaining post-lunch diners. The business meeting seemed satisfied, the first date couple appeared to enjoy their pizza and the reunited girlfriends were happily exchanging bites from each other's plates. I was immediately joined by Jack Scarangella, co-owner of Mercatto, who shared that "we pride ourselves on our service. We want everyone who joins us to be welcomed, as if this were our home."
The restaurant was a concept that Jack and his brother Domenic had, that was based upon their Italian roots. Food was integral to their upbringing and the Mercatto family of restaurants do well to preserve this. While the menu was originally assembled by Jack and Domenic, they have recently employed the assistance of their Executive Chef Filomena Palozzi (former Executive Chef of Oro). The team has worked hard to ensure there are fresh in-house made pastas, such as the long noodles and the gnocchi, however there aren't any family recipes to be found on the menu. However, the large portions convey traditional Italian generosity while the Orecchiette pugliesi ($13) pays homage to Jack and Domenic's family favorite meal of pasta, rapini, sausage, peperoncino and olive oil.
The server delivers me three, rather large Wild Boar Crostinis ($6). Tomato braised boar is piled atop a crisp grilled crostini. The appetizer is robust and comforting like a stew on a cold day with meaty chunks of boar amidst tomatoes and mushrooms. Followed by, the Homemade Gnocchi ($15) is served with a braised beef ragout, which is another hearty combination albeit, one part Italian and one part French. To the average diner the dish would be considered more of an Italian elevation of stew and potatoes. To Mercatto's merit, the gnocchi was very respectable for a high volume spot and both the dishes are ideal for a cold winter's day. Food like this is easy to produce consistently so I can understand the restaurant's continued success over 11 years.
The Butterscotch Budini ($6.50), Mercatto's much evangelized dessert, arrives alonside a bittersweet chocolate biscotti and an Americano. It must be mentioned that Mercatto has their own following of coffee lovers. They take a very serious Italian perspective to a perfectly drawn cup of espresso, even at the early morning hour of 7am. The coffee is all Illy brand and each barrista is trained thoroughly.
At 2:30pm on a Friday afternoon, the coffee still is nice, especially with spoonful's of Mercatto's layered version of the traditional Italian pudding. A light sprinkling of sea salt under a dollop of whipped cream, is another French influence that is gratefully applied to this immaculately creamy dessert.
While I didn't sample wines on my visit, it is worth mentioning that Mercatto has a unique wine dispensing system. With a collection over over a hundred vintages, the restaurant features and Enomatic wine-serving system that allows guests a variety of 24 wines to enjoy by the glass, by preserving the bottles with nitrogen. Therefore, Mercatto is able to offer diners even trophy wines, such as a Barolo, by the glass - something unheard of at many restaurants in the city.
With two locations in full swing and Mercatto at MaRS set to launch in April, lucky downtowners have access to an uplifted Italian eatery. The design, menu and service of each location is easily accessible to most genres of eaters, while the more serious ones will appreciate the consistency of their pastas, thin crust pizzas and impressive selection of wines by the glass. While the Toronto St. location has been around for over a decade, the near capacity dining room shows that Torontonians are fans of the restaurant's reasonably priced, simple and uncomplicated Italian inspired dishes.