102 North Market St.
Entrée Prices: Expensive ($14-$28)
Serving: Dinner (Mon.-Sat.)
When Mercato opened in 2006, it made a big splash on the dining scene, quickly earning loyal fans who loved the fact that it was a stylish downtown restaurant that served a lot of authentic Italian dishes.
The format has evolved over three years at this Hank Holliday restaurant, adapting, it seems, to the demands of the market. For example, the menu no longer uses Italian names for dishes (the "orchiette con salciccia e broccoletti" is now "orechiette pasta with housemade sausage and broccoli rabe"), and some of the more adventurous and authentically-Italian items that used to be on the menu, like braised octopus and whole roasted fish, are nowhere to be found.
Earlier this year, original chef Jacques Larson left, and he's since been replaced with Eddie Moran, who moved to Charleston from California after stints at an impressive list of restaurants in San Francisco and Carmel-by-the-Sea. It's been a few months now, but the change in chefs does not appear to have had much of an effect on the menu or the general approach of the restaurant.
For one, Mercato is still swanky. In fact, it's hard to describe Mercato without using the word. And it starts with the exterior: a narrow three-story building with tall plate glass windows topped by a yellow awning and a sharp stylized logo. It's definitely one of Charleston's most stylish restaurant facades.
The interior is swanky, too. The color scheme blends chocolate brown with soft reds and mustardy yellows. Downstairs you'll find a long marble bar with red leather-capped stools and a row of leather booths along the exposed brick wall which allow for dining in the high-energy bar area. There's live music in the bar most nights (a trio playing gypsy guitar jazz the last time I was in). Just sitting there having a drink can make even a dull geezer like myself feel sophisticated.
An open, cleverly-illuminated staircase (the risers are translucent and have yellow lights behind them) takes you to the second floor dining room, which has a domed ceiling crowned by a striking 1950s-era chandelier that seems modeled after Sputnik.
Right away, you notice a lot of nice little touches. They have their own housemade limoncello, for instance, which they mix with Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka to make a distinctively Charleston-style martini. The bread is served with a small plate of plain olive oil that is fruity and flavorful and perfect just by itself. It all leads to high expectations for the meal, which one assumes will be every bit as polished as the atmosphere and surroundings. In that area, though, Mercato at best succeeds only halfway.
The antipasto platter ($14) blends "artisanal salumi" with burrata cheese, marinated and roasted red and green peppers, and olives along with some more unusual treats, like marinated garlic, my favorite item on the plate. The olives and peppers are a little too vinegary for my taste, but the burrata — a runny, fresh cheese made from mozzarella and buffalo milk whey — is an unexpected twist.
The crispy risotto fritters ($8) sound tempting: creamy risotto flavored with prosciutto, mozzarella, and porcini mushrooms, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried a golden brown. The five ping pong ball-sized fritters are lined up on a long, narrow white dish and topped with lovely drizzles of tomato sauce and basil oil. They're crispy enough on the outside, but the interior is gooey in texture, and you can't really taste the prosciutto and porcini, so it all comes off as rather bland and disappointing.
Mercato's entrées are a fairly rote selection of pastas, chicken, and veal dishes. The veal scallopine ($19) is solid — a broad, flat veal cutlet served in a savory sauce that brims with prosciutto, capers, and sage. The potato gnocchi ($17) doesn't stack up as well. It's served with big, tender chunks of braised short ribs, which make for a substantial entrée, but the gnocchi themselves are too soft, and the dried tomatoes that are mixed in are very, very sweet. They don't quite meld with the richness of the short ribs.
The pork osso bucco ($23) comes served with a pork shank standing upright on the plate amid a bed of creamy polenta, and this big tower of meat is designed to be carved off, gyro-style, with a butter knife. The pork is insanely delicious, with a salty crust hiding meltingly tender meat and served with a rich rosemary-infused reduction sauce. The polenta is from Anson Mills, whose products ordinarily have such vibrant corn flavor that they don't need a lot of seasoning or enriching, but in this case, the polenta is too plain to stand up to the heavily-flavored shank.
Like the entrées, the service is hit-or-miss, too, with too many long gaps when you're waiting for drinks to arrive or to order the next part of the meal.
For dessert, the housemade gelato ($7) — a scoop of espresso and another of vanilla on my last visit — is a reliable ending. The panna cotta ($7) is even better, a sweet, creamy delight that's nicely offset by a tangy drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It goes a long way toward making one forget some of the misfires of the evening, but not all the way.
Mercato is a flashy place, and if you need to take out the kind of people who are impressed by flashy joints, this is a great place to go.
When the food hits the mark, it's really good. And when it misfires it isn't terrible, necessarily, but it's disappointing considering the high expectations the surroundings set.