Philadelphia’s Midtown/Washington Square West neighborhood has long been home to a revolving door of trendy eateries, but Mercato, located at 1216 Spruce Street, has managed to capture the attention and admiration of locals for years. This restaurant scene mainstay only improves as time passes, recently taking up the mantle of slow cooking. This culinary technique emphasizes lower temperatures and painstaking attention to flavor retention, and has become a hallmark of Mercato’s Executive Chef Mackenzie Hilton's approach. Her interest in this preparation method was sparked after her travels through Germany and France during college, and her passion has only grown since. With each course, my dining partner and I gained a new appreciation for the magnified flavors and complex aromas created by Chef Hilton, who happens to be a seasoned slow cooking enthusiast.
Mercato's interior welcomes diners with a glimpse into the open kitchen, while exposed brick walls and large windows open onto the street adding a sense of expansiveness. After taking our seats, we noticed the close proximity of tables but were pleased to discover that the noise level was kept in check by the dining room’s layout. The distance between us and our neighbors offered a sense of shared exploration as dishes arrived from the kitchen. Nearby diners offered tips and shared their favorites with us each step of the way, contributing to a delightfully communal experience. Mercato is typically busy, but the wait staff remains pleasant and attentive. The dress code is decidedly relaxed but on weeknights it can range from casual to upscale elegant.
Never short on charm, the surroundings transform simple “eating” into fine-dining by infusing the experience with a keen sense of history. Mercato occupies the old Camac Food Market building, doing justice to its classic lines and tradition of quality. Chef Mackenzie Hilton, a 27 year-old transplant who once entertained notions of becoming an attorney, has truly found her calling behind the burners. With an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and fresh takes on Italian classics, the attention to detail shines through in the diverse menu options. The restaurant does not serve alcohol but patrons are welcome to bring their own beer, wine or liquor, to round out their meal.
One advantage to Mercato's somewhat diminutive dining room is the abundant sidewalk seating available once the indoor area begins to fill up. When the weather cooperates, there are few things more delightful than people watching on Spruce Street while devouring the distinctive olive buttered bread. Given the improvisational style of seating, foodies desiring a more informal setting will find that Mercato is an attractive option. The tables resemble hearty butcher blocks with a robust look and worn-in surface, thus completing the overall effect that you've stumbled into a friend's well-appointed kitchen. Thankfully, this friend doesn't mind cooking your favorite dishes and from time to time creating one you've never encountered before.
Overall, we found the meal to be a pleasantly surprising marriage between Italian stalwarts like Parmesan encrusted meats and innovative dishes that distinguish Mercato as a dining destination. Appetizers run the gamut from truly bite sized to large sharing portions. The Bruschetta arrives in three generous slices of char-grilled bread each dressed with a unique twist on this Italian specialty. We wanted to wade into the Bruschetta slowly and found the tomato and fresh mozzarella version to be a good primer. Next, the truffled mushroom fontina bruschetta was a creative foray into savory fungi. With its earthy undertones, the mushroom bruschetta tantalized the palette and we found it worth lingering over. The third and final slice of artisan bread featured a Tuscan white bean pesto, constituting a strong finish to a comprehensively delicious course. This appetizer is ideal for sharing and makes for great, interactive finger food.
A fantastic attempt at gastronomic artistry, the Short Rib Ragu is a can't miss dish and constitutes the most striking evidence of Chef Hilton's proficiency with the slow cooking technique. Tender and packed with flavor, the deep mahogany colored ragu enjoys hours of gradual heat producing a taste all its own. Flanked by sumptuous ricotta gnocchi and enlivened by the chef's sautéed broccoli rabe, the braised beef is velvety and complimented nicely by the shaved Locatelli romano. The dish’s seasoning is subtle enough to avoid overpowering but the delicate gnocchi still packs a punch for even the most experienced short rib connoisseur.
The Parmesan Crusted Veal Cutlets possessed a flavor that lasted long after my first bite. The aromas of fresh artichokes, roasted red peppers and spinach engulf you while its lemon white wine veal demi-glace adds a level of complexity rarely found in veal dishes. I detected a few hints of smoky flavor but for the most part, the veal cutlets were dominated by the vegetable flavors, adding another dimension to a traditional dish.
For diners interested in the dining from the sea, Mercato's Crispy Skin Striped Bass greatly impressed me. The caramelized cipollini onions are a true treat for the senses, while the artichokes accompany a small helping of pancetta crisp, effectively elevating the dish to "favorite" status for me. With a delightfully flaky texture, the bass was an enticingly subtle counterpoint to the restaurant's more pungent dishes. As a fan of Chianti, I was pleased to discover that the dish's abundant wine reduction factored heavily into the taste of the bass.
In terms of dessert, the Warm Apple Ricotta Cake is a traditional combination of dairy-infused richness and the punch of tart apple. While I enjoyed the sweet simplicity of this dish, the subtle complexity of Mercato's Tiramisu really demonstrated the kitchen's way with desserts. In fact, by the time the check arrived, I was prompted to renew my passport and continue my culinary immersion abroad. Smooth and soft, this lady finger concoction owes its appeal to a great balance of liquor and sugar notes. The layers of spongy cake and mascarpone were decadently thick while I enjoyed the espresso kick more and more with each bite. Sweet-tooths of all kinds will enjoy sinking their fork into this signature Italian delicacy with just the right ratio of creamy to tangy.
Mercato, demonstrating its innovative approach to Italian cuisine, also offers a well-edited cross-section of specialty olive oils available table side for a small charge. Hailing from Greece, Chili and Italy, this collection adds a touch of luxury to an otherwise relaxed and unassuming dining experience. We enjoyed the Frantoia from Sicily which is best described as mingling scents of fresh fruit with a subtle aftertaste of sweet almonds.
In addition, if you notice a table that has fallen eerily silent, it's most likely due to the arrival of Mercato's signature cured meats and artisan cheeses. At our own table, you could hear crickets chirp as we savored the flavors of Prosciutto, Sopressata, Genoa Salami and Bresaola that grace Mercato’s cured meats plate. A glance around the dining room revealed that the cheeses, which have their origins in France, California and Holland, are equally as popular. While we did not sample the cheese offerings, we were assured by the contented smiles on the faces of the other diners that the cheese plate was undoubtedly worth saving room for.
Each course showcased Chef Hilton's masterful preparations, proving that Mercato is a versatile and intriguing source for innovative Italian in a laid back setting. My overall experience at this cash-only restaurant left me with a vibrant sense of both the neighborhood and the possibilities that Italian food affords in the hands of a talented chef. The distinctive combinations of ingredients available throughout Mercato’s menu are a welcome respite from more conventional Italian offerings and the restaurant’s infectious energy sent us off whistling into the night, take-out box in hand.