Mercato Ristorante + Bar

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That lovable beagle, Snoopy, starts all his novels out with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.”  And that’s pretty much how our recent visit to Mercado began, with your SarasotaFoodies dropping in for dinner as Hurricane Hermine rolled around in the Gulf of Mexico.  Seeing few people out on the streets, we grabbed a parking spot right across the street and, umbrella at the ready, headed in for a night of delightful Italian food.
Mercado has recently changed hands with Clearwater businessman, Ezequiel Valdes taking over the operation of the restaurant.  Valdes is no stranger to the food industry, as his gourmet homemade pasta company TamPasta already supplying scratch-made pasta to numerous restaurants in the area.  Born in Cuba but raised in Siena, in the Tuscany region of Italy, Valdes brings the quality of homemade pasta, bright seafood and the colorful flavors of his home country to Mercado Ristorante + Bar.
A basket of fresh bread, a glass of wine, and we're off to a great dinner!

A basket of fresh bread, a glass of wine, and we’re off to a great dinner!

Taking a seat in the dining room, Mart started with an order of Mercado’s Calamari appetizer, which was just as clean and crispy as you could ever ask for.  Always served fresh (never frozen) the outer batter on the calamari was both crispy and dry, the fresh squid juicy and tender.  This calamari was cooked to perfection . . . delicious to eat just as served, with-or-without the marinara or the pepper aioli dipping sauces that came with the dish.
Calamari Fritti Appetizer

Calamari Fritti Appetizer

My appetizer was the Polpo e Patate, essentially an octopus and potato salad, brightly dressed with the tangy taste of lemon.  This is a wonderful way to experience octopus!  Each bite is cut into bite sized chunks, diced equally in size to the potatoes, and mixed with a lemon and herbs citronette.  I’d even consider the Polpo e Patate an ideal choice when craving a light lunch that’s just a little different than a salad.
Polpo E Patate Appetizer

Polpo E Patate Appetizer

Chef Sam Hatfield sent us two orders of pasta to try, the first a delicious Spaghetti alla Carbonara made with pancetta, egg, cream, black pepper and pecorino (a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk!)  The pancetta provides an essence of bacon flavor to the sauce, which certainly appealed to Mart.
The Spaghetti alla Puttanesca served up a red sauce, graced with a Roma tomato sauce, anchovies, capers, kalamata olives and garlic.  Puttanesca sauce is lighter than a marinara pasta sauce and such a great framework for the fresh Tampasta spaghetti noodles.  Chef brought out a couple packages of the pasta, showing that it is freshly made and kept refrigerated until cooked.  The difference in spaghetti flavor and mouth-feel was clearly evident.  “Anything else would be an imposter pasta!” Mart explained, delighted in the flavor, body and chew of the spaghetti noodles themselves.
Spagetti Alla Puttanesca (front) and Spagetti Alla Carbonara.

Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca (front) and Spaghetti Alla Carbonara.

Mercado’s bar features a brick pizza oven which is always hard at work, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when patrons flock to enjoy Mercado’s live music scene.  Known for their crispy thin crust, and two minute cooking time, Mercado offers 15 different pizza choices on their menu, all made “personal-size” that can be shared or served as an entrée.
Chef Hatfield, prepping one of Mercado's popular thin crust pizzas.

Chef Hatfield, prepping one of Mercado’s popular thin crust pizzas.

Mart can never resist pizza, so even though we had entrées already selected, he ordered the signature Mercado Pizza . . . “just to try.” The Mercado is a margherita style pizza topped with fresh arugula, sliced cherry tomatoes and layers of gorgeous prosciutto.  When we asked if Mercado delivers these beautiful pies, Ezequiel explained that their thin crust pizzas don’t travel as well as thicker crusts, recommending that guests come into the restaurant to enjoy.  That being said, Mart did take leftovers home, and re-heated them in the oven the next day.  Happily, that delicious thin crust crisped right up again. . . so there’s that!
The Mercado Pizza

The Mercado Pizza

Mart’s pizza boxed up for home, we focused on our entrées.  Having seen some beautiful food photography on Mercado’s Facebook page, I knew ahead of time that I wanted to try the Riso Venere . . . aka “Forbidden Rice.”  Riso Venere is a black rice with a mild, nutty flavor that hints of sandalwood. While cooking Riso Venere has the aroma of freshly baked bread that becomes even more discernible as it cooks.  I’ve always loved it!  Mercado serves their Riso Venere in the shape of a pyramid surrounded by a sea of calamari and shrimp.  Their sauce is a buttery bisque with hints of basil, so delicious I could have eaten it, by itself, with a spoon . . . instead choosing to drop big spoonfuls of it over the rice and seafood.
Riso Venere - Forbidden Rice with seafood!

Riso Venere – Forbidden Rice with seafood!

Mart’s Ossobucco was originally served only as a special at Mercado, and was recently added to the regular menu.  Good move! Mercado cooks their petite veal shank sous vide in a chunky brown mushroom sauce with a generous side of Parmesan risotto. Sous vide a cooking method where the veal shank (in this case) was sealed in an airtight plastic bag then placed in a temperature-controlled water bath for much longer than you’d normal cook veal shanks, often up to 6 hours or more. The result is a veal shank cooked evenly inside and out, all the moisture and juices of the meat cooked into the shank until the it was removed from the water bath and charred on the grill.   Honestly, this Ossobucco just falls off the bone!

Ossobucco from Mercado

Ossobucco from Mercado

While the rest of Sarasota hunkered down for Tropical Storm Hermine, we watched the rain for awhile and decided we couldn’t leave without sharing a dessert . . . or two.
Tiramisu and Torta Di Cioccolato

Tiramisu and Torta Di Cioccolato

I first took a bite of Mercado’s cool, luscious  Tiramisu, always one of our favorite desserts and lately on a winner’s streak when we head out for Italian food.  This tiramisu was a delight, but streaks are made to be broken, and that happened the minute I tasted a small bite of the Torta Di Cioccolato.
Torta di Cioccolato

Torta di Cioccolato

The first thing to be blown away on this night of tropical storm winds was my expectations.  I don’t know why I expected a heavy chocolate flavor when served the Torta di Ciocolato, but I was wrong!  Resembling a chocolate cake with light chocolate icing, I was amazed with how light and airy each bite was.  (Don’t tell me what the calorie count is.  I don’t EVER want to know!) Instead of frosting I discovered a mascarpone and Nutella filling that added so much moistness and velvety goodness I couldn’t stop myself! Even though this was NOT on my diet, I will go hungry for days just to have the Torta di Cioccolato again!  Trust me . . . I’m fasting now!
Thinking it over, we enjoyed several “not to be missed” dishes at Mercado.  Check out their Facebook page for more food photography and the schedule of their upcoming musical acts.  In the meantime, why not try them out for lunch or dinner and let us know what you think!  And for real, save room for dessert!


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