I first reviewed Mercato in March 2009, just after the founding chef, Jacques Larson, had moved on (he eventually landed at the acclaimed Wild Olive on Johns Island). At the time, Larson's successor, Eddie Moran, had not made significant changes to the format, and, as it turns out, he never did. When he left at the beginning of this year after a two-year stint, heading to the Sou'Wester at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in D.C., Mercato's menu was essentially the same as the one he'd inherited. But a new face, Ben Ellsworth, has since stepped into the executive chef role, and when the restaurant announced a new menu on its Facebook page back in July, it seemed time to pay another visit and see what might have changed.
Not a lot, as it turns out.
Mussels Genovese ($13) with pesto, white wine, and tomatoes have subbed in for the beef carpaccio on the "antipasti" list, and a Bibb lettuce salad ($10) with onions, walnuts, and romano displaced an arugula and chicory version, but the opening selection is still essentially the same offering of familiar Italian-American fare: bruschetta, fried calamari, a Caesar with fresh anchovies.
The caprese salad ($9) is the classic combination of sliced tomatoes — fresh heirloom ones, in this case — with fresh mozzarella and, in Mercato's version, not just basil leaves but a generous drizzling of pesto, too. The mozzarella is housemade, firm, and a little grainy, and the whole is spiked with a generous amount of salt and pepper. All in all, it's predictable but good.
For more inventive dishes, look to the specials. On my last visit, the appetizer special was five figs stuffed with gorgonzola dulce, wrapped in prosciutto, and then grilled until the prosciutto is slightly browned and just beginning to turn crisp. The figs and gorgonzola were warmed just enough to release their savory sweetness. Served around a pile of frisee salad and drizzles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the figs were generously sprinkled with julienned radish, a finishing touch that offered a pleasingly bitter bite to round out a complex blend of flavors.
For pasta and entrées, the new menu amounts to just a few minor adjustments, too. The chicken parm ($17), veal parm ($18), and pork osso bucco are unchanged, but where there once was chicken piccata and veal marsala, now there's chicken marsala ($18) and veal piccata ($19). The "Tuscan grilled" NY Strip has been replaced by a "Tuscan grilled" flatiron steak ($28) with mashed potatoes and braised Brussels sprouts.
The potato gnocchi used to be served with braised short ribs and cippolini onions; now they're dressed in a sausage and fennel ragu ($18), and it's one of the house's better dishes. The gnocchi has just the right fluffy but chewy texture, and the sweet, bright sausage slices offer perfect little bites — in fact, I found myself wanting a little more sausage to pair up one-for-one with each gnocchi.
Another new menu addition, the local shrimp and blue crab risotto ($18), on paper seems like a promising adaptation of traditional Italian recipes to our local ingredients. The big lumps of crab are the best part of the dish, but overall it's rather unimpressive — salty and yet bland at the same time. Little kernels of sweet corn and bits of sautéed leeks are tucked away inside the risotto, but they're barely noticeable, and the risotto's too-mushy texture is the final strike.
When I last wrote about Mercato, the one word I found myself using over and over was "swanky." What better way to describe the long marble bar and the flanking booths with their big arcs of brown leather around the back, the staircase with back-lit yellow risers, and, of course, the dramatic yellow façade of the building? This time, looking around the big upstairs room as we paused between courses, the bright red walls, the big framed mirrors, and even the retro Sputnik-like chandelier seemed a little faded.
Perhaps it was just our mood. The evening had gotten off to a rough start when, despite having reservations for two, we were seated unceremoniously and without comment at the end of the big community table in the bar downstairs, just yards from the little trio kicking out good but very loud jazz. Our hostess seemed a little surprised that we found this unacceptable, but after a 25-minute wait standing up in the hot, crowded bar — angling for but never scoring a stool to prop on — we were seated at a table upstairs, where the jazz from the bar faded into pleasant background music.
After that, things improved considerably on the service front, and the rest of the evening proceeded uneventfully. But uneventful isn't the same as great.
So, what to make of Mercato? It's not a chef-driven restaurant, and its menu doesn't change week in and week out. Is that necessarily a bad thing? For tourists passing down the crowded sidewalks along the Market looking for someplace nice but not too risky, certainly not. For locals who like the format as it is and want to go back and enjoy the same big portions of Italian-American classics on each visit, it's a reliable bet. As the weekend crowds show, that consistency and reliability certainly packs 'em in.
For me, though, there's something ultimately disappointing about the sameness, since it seems like such a missed opportunity. Mercato made impressive waves both for its food and its style when it first opened in 2006, earning the Best New Restaurant honors in the City Paper's annual reader survey. Larson's original menu included such novel dishes as "Ravioli di Lowcountry" (stuffed with collards and shredded ham hocks) and braised octopus with shaved fennel, but after a couple of years these were displaced by more familiar items like veal piccata and chicken parm.
That formula seems to have been successful, though, and from a business perspective it's hard to fault the consistency. But, aesthetically, it has gradually become less and less interesting, and certainly not a restaurant worth fighting the crowds to experience.