RESTAURANT REVIEW: Mercato 

Italian fare that you can't refuse

click to enlarge Capers, olives, parsley, and lemon all sleep with the fishes at Mercato
  • Capers, olives, parsley, and lemon all sleep with the fishes at Mercato

Mercato
Italian
Entrées: $20 and up
Dinner nightly, late night menu 'til 1 a.m.
102 N. Market St.
Downtown
722-8393

During the day, the door looks like a splat of mustard against the muted facade of North Market Street. At night, its hue yields to the seductive luster of electric light, promising plush warmth and conviviality within. To step through that yellow door is to be transported, to enter a space somewhat rare in the Charleston scene. Few restaurants achieve the architectural texture that weaves Mercato together. Soft light effuses from all directions; illuminated stair risers summon visitors to the second floor. Multi-colored sconces and bulbous chandeliers spill down upon the dark bar and red leather booths. The floor juts dangerously toward the sidewalk, its edge a glowing ring; small tables sit behind the massive glass façade, offering their occupants the spectacle of the street. A reported four million dollars of Italian bling spills over you in waves of authenticity. Andy Fallen, perhaps the most skilled front man in the city, greets you by name and asks about your kids (he probably knows their names, too).

Mercato's formality pushes it beyond the neighborhood trattorias (which seem to be all the rage these days); one would have to call it a ristorante, more formal and prescribed. Chef Jacques Larson's food can certainly back up this assertion, but the layout allows for a range of modalities. The fishbowl of a front window delightfully sucks the beautiful people into its trance. Like fireflies in a mason jar, they flutter there at starched white tables sipping cocktails — bellinis, negronis, flutes of bubbles — live mannequins soaking in the radiance of a cool evening. Some nibble antipasti, playful preludes of the meal to come. They stay late into the night, subsisting on a steady diet of Campari mixtures, great wine, and a limited menu of antipasti, pizza, and pasta.

Wine bottles stand sentinel over the bar — myriad offerings from every region of the Italian boot and beyond peer down over a steady rhythm of stools receding into the interior. Hungry eaters inhabit the first few seats, munching on pizzas with shattering crusts; halfway down the long bar a man stares silently into a glass of grappa, sullen and contemplative, as if Edward Hopper painted him in place. Families laugh together in big round leather booths. The stairs shine from beneath the treads, bars of light leading the way into a marvelous upstairs space, comfortably formal as only Italy can be. Moonlight shines brightly through windows overlooking the rooftops below and here it begins — the culinary genius of Jacques Larson.

Twining tentacles of braised octopus reach through forests of shaved fennel and red onions, dripping with sharp citrus, the cool tender flesh yielding with the slightest resistance in the "Polpo e Finocchio" ($12). It is the essence of seaside Italy, room temperature, with a perfect balance of bitter and sour against the fresh sea. "Coppa Cotto con Mostarda" ($10) presents lavishly rich pork, paper thin pinwheels napped in a tongue-biting fruit preserve spiked with freshly ground mustard. It is a perfect foil for the rich fat of the meat, cutting through with an awakening call: dinner is on.

Primi plates, those wonderfully starchy openers to any authentic Italian meal, come in equally genuine half sizes if asked for. Minestrones of white beans, ravioli of Lowcountry collards and smoked hocks, "Orchiette con Salciccia e Broccoletti" ($17.00/$8.50) and "Spaghetti alla Carbonara" ($16.00/$8.00) threaten the stomach with deliciousness. The pasta steams in the bowl, perfectly cooked and dressed sparingly, the way it should be. The homemade sausage confirms the kitchen's skill, as does the dressing of the über-authentic Carbonara. It comes sans peas, no cream, slathered in the ooze of thickened yolks, perfectly smooth, no lumps or curdles, attention is paid. The food and the service at Mercato is first-rate stuff.

Secondi/entrées are no different. They drip with the authentic hand of Italian method. "Arrosto di Pesce" ($25) features whole roasted fish (we had black sea bass), staring at you from the plate, slathered with capers, olives, parsley, and lemon. Crackling skin tops an ultra-moist flesh, juicy, flavorful, and perfectly cooked. Fresh fish, treated as simply as they come, allows the bounty of our local waters to shine through (even an oversalted exterior did not impede the enjoyment of the dish once the skin was removed; we chalked it up as an isolated error). "Ossobuco di Vitello" ($27), a meltingly tender braised shank of veal — rich and earthy — proffers the lemony tang of a saffron-tomato fregula (small round pasta typical of Sardinia). A sharp pang of citrus laced herbs balances the dish, toasted hazelnuts grinding a pleasant bitter-sweet edge over the whole. It is love on a bone, so large that it stretches to a leftover adult snack, two toddler dinners, and a doggie dessert before finally being extinguished; so superior that few other places in town need continue to serve the dish. The "Gnocco" ($7), a hearty side dish of baked semolina, makes for the perfect accompaniment, flowing like hot lava from the spoon, strings of fontina cheese dribbling over the edge, broiled and blackened in spots.

If one looks to fault the place it could only be to question the menu itself. For all the resounding elegance and formality, the current menu seems strangely blasé. Larson shows glints of distinctiveness, originality, and innovation, but for all the fanfare surrounding the opening, cooking with Mario Batali in New York, and the journey through numerous Italian kitchens, it is rather clear that he has yet to be unleashed.

They just aren't pushing the envelope. Too many dishes smack of Italian-American dishes, rather than the authentic cuisine of the boot itself. "Spaghetti e Polpette"? That's spaghetti and meatballs, a dish practically unheard of in Italy. "Gamberoni Locali con Polenta" easily translates as "Shrimp and Grits." "Vitello Parmigiano"? Bada bing, baby! All the old clichés reside here, prepared deliciously, no doubt, but lacking that edge, that promise that the place seems to emit out of every pore. It smacks of a corporate hand in an otherwise perfect kitchen — we are on the Market, after all, and we all know the money to be made here with the right approach.

So bravo! Mercato must be considered a resounding success. Perhaps with time they will become more comfortable with exploration, less tied to the tired old standards that can make Italian food boring. Perhaps Larson will return to Italy and introduce influences from the Italian South. Or perhaps the place will revert to what so many restaurants along that stretch of road have done in the past and shovel an inferior menu to an overpaying clientele. They have the team and they have the spot. The dishes should be as inspiring as the chandeliers.


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