My Valentine’s Day @ Mercato

It was a dark and stormy night.

Well, that’s not wholly true, but it’s close. And I always wanted to write that.

It’s also not true that it was Valentine’s Day. In fact, it was the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day, and while it wasn’t exactly stormy, it was dark and there was precipitation. Freezing precipitation.

Let me back up a bit. The reason we were going out on such a crappy night was because my lovely wife, who is still in veterinary school, was scheduled to work the night shift during the national love holiday. The reason we chose Mercato was more because of chance. While we’ve always wanted to try this tiny BYOB in Center City (#4 on “the list”), we figured we’d try to beat the weather by going local (within a block). Alas, our first choices, Le Castagne and Matyson, could not seat us.

Not ones to be beaten down by adversity, we grabbed a bottle of wine, walked gingerly to the curb, and caught a cab to Mercato. After ten slip-sliding, life-threatening minutes, we were there.

Completely opposite to its reputation, the tiny dining room was empty. This was no doubt due to the dangerous weather, but it no doubt eased the mind of this slightly agoraphobic diner. We chose a cozy table looking out the window and settled in for our meal.

As we sipped our wine (a Chilean red whose name escapes me), we perused not just the regular menu, but also the olive oil and the cheese menus. The fact that these latter two menus even existed was a good sign. Any restaurant that has many choices of olive oil and cheese knows the way to my heart.

We did not order a special dipping olive oil, but instead had our bread with Mercato’s homemade basil butter. If the saying that “you can tell the quality of restaurant by its bread and butter” is true, then our hopes just went sky high.

We started with two small appetizers. The Market Salad (poached pears, mixed greens, piave & spiced pecans, rosemary honey balsamic vinaigrette) was light and delicious. The dressing was not overpowering, but accented the vegetables perfectly. If I had to complain, the salad was a bit stingy with the piave (one of my favorite cheeses). But that’s a squabble.

Unfortunately, the cheese platter we chose was a bit of a disappointment, though not by any fault of the restaurant. We simply chose incorrectly. One of the three (Roth’s Private Reserve, a hard, nutty cheese) was excellent; the other two (Rustico Red Pepper and Saint Andre) were… not our style. The soft, creamy Saint Andre was barely a cheese at all and tasted like spreadable nothing.

With that slightly bad taste in our mouths, we moved to the main course. My wife ordered the Lobster & Shrimp pasta dish (“pyramid” pasta, asparagus, parmesan brown butter) and was immediately impressed by the presentation. On a long horizontal dish, the geometric dumplings were spaced evenly apart with tomato-flecked asparagus dolloped between them. The whole dish sat in a thin layer of the aromatic sage butter. While this made for a richer dish than first expected, we were both pleasantly surprised by the fairly light taste.

I was even happier with my dish – Pan Seared Diver Scallops (wild mushroom & english pea risotto, parmesan crisp, truffle oil). I’m a sucker for a good risotto, and when paired with well-prepared seafood, it may be one of my perfect meal combinations. The scallops were tender and the risotto had bite. Add the salty crunch of the parmesan crisp and the richness of the truffle oil, and it was a winner.

By the time the coffee and dessert came along, we were all alone at the restaurant. It was only 8:15.

Though we were both full, I forced myself to get Classic Tiramisu – which I consider a good indicator of an Italian restaurant’s overall quality. While not the best I’ve ever had, this was indeed the “classic” combination of layered sweetness. Perhaps a bit heavy on the marscapone but, again, just a squabble.

All in all, we had a fantastic time at Mercato. If we lived in the area, I think it would become a staple. Unfortunately, with both Melograno and Caffe Casta Diva in the neighborhood, the conditions will have to be just right for us to return.

Maybe another dark and stormy night.

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