First look: Mercato Italiano Trattoria & Market

The exterior of Mercato Italiano in Norton Commons. | Photo by Steve Coomes

The exterior of Mercato Italiano in Norton Commons | Photo by Steve Coomes

Short of stumbling upon a few hundred-grand stashed below the driver’s seat of my car, a home for me in Norton Commons isn’t in the offing. Yet I’d still appreciate the option because I like the place a lot.

I don’t understand all the hating on this neat-as-a-pin northeast Jefferson County enclave, the ragging on its architecture as “faux classic” and its layout as boring or unnaturally linear. I routinely hear dissenters imagining aloud that all the residents within are just rude nouveau riche and vowing they’d never live there.

The view below from the loft dining room. | Photo by Steve Coomes

The view below from the loft dining room | Photo by Steve Coomes

To such detractors, I say go visit anyway. Park dead center in the village, get out of your car and look around and see if you really don’t like the looks of it. Who cares if it’s vaguely Disney-esque; it’s not a bit hard on the eyes.

See if it bothers you that within about an eighth of a mile from where you’re standing, you can walk in almost any direction and find great food and drink: modern Mexican (Citizen 7), gelato (Gelato Gilberto), Chinese (Tea Station Bistro), pub grub (Karem’s), coffee (Meeting Street Coffee House), breakfast/brunch (Verbena Café), a wine, cocktail bar and package shop (Commonwealth Tap) and pizza (Johnny Brusco’s). Try it. Just park and walk — like the residents do — and imagine that if you lived there, how pleasant it would be to hoof it home after drinks.

It’s what I and some friends mused about the other night as we walked for three grueling minutes along Meeting Street from Citizen 7, where we had margaritas, to Mercato Italiano Trattoria & Market, where we were treated to a soft opening dinner. This latest venture in the rapidly expanding OLE Restaurant Group’s (ORG) portfolio opened to the public Monday, Feb. 1, in a former market at 10640 Meeting St.

It is ORG’s second attempt at casual Italian. The first, Cena, was a hidden gem in the basement spot below ORG’s Mussel & Burger Bar in J-Town. Though it was sophisticated and moderately cutting edge, it never generated the sales ORG wanted. So the elegant space was repurposed for private parties, and the Italian restaurant concept was retooled for Norton Commons.

I can’t conceive of how it will meet Cena’s fate. Not only is it surrounded by thousands of hungry residents who have no serious Italian options nearby — certainly not within walking distance — it’s moderately priced, casual, simple and charming. And really, really good, which surprises no one familiar with ORG’s other concepts: Artesano Vino Tapas y Mas, Guaca Mole and El Taco Luchador.

Much like Artesano, the décor draws on lots of red and white accents, tiled walls and wood tables. But instead of bull’s heads and photos of matadors slaying bovines, a wall in one area of the dining room bears a large mural of Italian foods. Along the wall in another section are actual Italian foods — pasta, oils, tomatoes, charcuterie and cheeses you can buy.

Gnocchi in a bright, rustic tomato sauce. | Photo courtesy of Mercato Italiano

Gnocchi in a bright, rustic tomato sauce | Courtesy of Mercato Italiano

But seeing as we were there to eat rather than fill the larder, we began studying the menu of about 40 small and sharable plates. There are 10 Italian cheese and 12 salumi choices that can be purchased individually ($6-$8 each) or at the chef’s discretion and served on a large wooden board ($22). We opted for the latter, which tested the volume of all four stomachs with what came out. Cheeses, salumi, mustards, preserves, grilled bread, etc. I could have called it a meal right there.

But we gamely pushed on through courses of Polpo (slow roasted octopus with a pancetta salad, $13), Formaggio di Carpo (barely breaded and fried spheres of warm goat’s cheese with pesto, $9) and Insalata Burrata (a delicate mozzarella cheese with a soft cream center, served with watermelon radish, golden beets and basil pesto, $10).

In the 15 years I’ve known my three dinner guests, I’ve never seen any of them eat half what I do at dinner, and my appetite is arguably modest. But out of nowhere they morphed into battle-tested Vikings at Valhalla’s banquet table, flipping the menu to its second side to order new dishes. Gnocchi alla Sorrentina ($15), the most tender potato version of this dish I’ve ever eaten, arrived tossed in a simple sauce of brightly acidic San Marzano tomatoes, basil and salt. Ravioli ($18) stuffed with braised short rib, oyster mushrooms and tossed in a truffle cream sauce followed, yet their pace didn’t slow.

Someone, I don’t know who, ordered a Margherita pizza to test Mercato’s pizza standard. But a single selection wasn’t good enough for ORG partner and executive chef, Fernando Martinez, who visited our table to ask about the meal. Perhaps sensing my gut was at its limits, he smiled a strangely charitable and sadistic smile and insisted more pizzas were needed.

“You can’t come here tonight and not try a lot,” he said. Pointing to the menu, he added, “What I want you to have is half of this and half of that,” which turned out to be — I think — the Prosciutto ($15) pie with Tallegio cheese and fig preserves, and the Di Capra e Pera with guanciale, lardo and white balsamic-poached pears ($15). Simultaneously rustic and delicious.

The chef's choice salmui and cheese board. | Photo by Steve Coomes

The chef’s choice salmui and cheese board. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Somewhere between the time the pizzas arrived or after, I don’t know, Martinez piled on one last item, the Costoletta di Maiale ($29), a prosciutto-wrapped pork chop slow-cooked sous vide and served with apricot mostarda. Stuck upright into the 3-inch-thick chop and its scamorza-filled center was a hefty steak knife I used to remove the bone. Unsure I could muster the will to taste even a bite, I looked up to find my normally light-eating friends armed with forks and waiting perhaps a bit too impatiently for me to serve them. As I watched them dig into this hunk o’ hog as if it was our first course, I wondered what had happened to these normally delicate souls who’d formerly shown great restraint.

And then I joined them, taking more than the single forkful at which I should have stopped. Delicious, piggy and porky, the way pork tastes too infrequently in this country.

Because one of our tablemates was a cute and charming young school teacher, our server, a veteran teacher herself, ensured she left with a souvenir order of the Ravioli. I didn’t envy her for a second. My aching pipes were just glad Martinez had ceased piling on new portions, incredibly flavorful as they were.

For now, Mercato Italiano is open Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m., but lunch and brunch may follow. Presently it’s not taking reservations, but you can call 690-3200 to gauge your wait time. If you show up and it’s on a wait, just get your name on the list and go have a drink nearby. There are lots of options just a few steps away.