If location can predict success, the new Mercato Pizzeria + Bar in Sarasota’s Southside Village is primed to be a hit. This spacious, casual trattoria sits in a spot that was the lucky incubator for The Table and before that Zoria, whose talented chef-owners now operate Pomona and Lila.
With its rustic decor (lots of old wood, weathered metal and pretty tile), colorful red brick pizza oven, good wines and a chalkboard offering specials, Mercato checks the boxes for today’s diners. It’s likely Southside families will walk to Mercato, as well as people who work in the bustling area.
The owner of Mercato, Alessandro Settimi, was the original owner of Burns Court’s Matto Matto (now closed.) He relocated from Toronto, Canada, where he won awards for his pizzas. He’s hoping to do the same in Sarasota with about two dozen selections that are done in the Roman way—thin crust. Some of the toppings are creative (but not outlandish), making Mercato’s 12-inch personal pizzas worth studying. Puzzola glorifies Gorgonzola cheese, onion and sausage. Americana includes salami and mushrooms. The house Mercato pizza ($18) is a Margherita pie topped with fresh arugula, cherry tomatoes and prosciutto. Honestly, that one sounds a little dull.
Pizzas range from $10 to $18 and are divided on the menu into red or white. The whites highlight two or more Italian cheeses. One that could surely be a meal is the Patate E Salsiccia, which is sliced potato, sausage, Gorgonzola and rosemary. Diavola features hot soppressate and crushed chilli. We opted for the white seasonal mushroom pizza with sausage and truffle oil and couldn’t taste any truffle, although the mushrooms were plentiful and the crumbled sausage altogether satisfying.
In the description for many of the pizzas you’ll see “fior di latte,” which is semi-soft cheese made in the style of Italian mozzarella but with cow’s milk instead of the milk of the water buffalo, which is true mozzarella. Fior di latte has nice melting characteristics and widespread use in pizza-making in America and Europe, because it can be less expensive without sacrificing flavor.
Besides the pizzas, Mercato has an intriguing array of small plates such as suppli (Roman street food), little balls of pomodoro risotto stuffed with cheese. You could easily pop a dozen before you know it. A serving is $9. Calamari served with aioli is disappointingly ordinary, but the fried octopus with lemon ($14) is worth having, as are the juicy and flavorful little meatballs ($9). The generous antipasto misto board at $19 is ideal for sharing or a meal for one.
The menu also has 10 pasta dishes (pasta is homemade daily), a half dozen salads, including a delectable one made with both roasted yellow and red beets for $13 and a kale Caesar to which you can add anchovies or grilled chicken for an up-charge. And there are full entrées such as grilled lamb chops with roasted potatoes ($33), salmon scaloppini ($22), chicken Milanese ($19), lasagna ($14), a chef’s catch-of-the-day (market price) and a daily special risotto that is also market price.
For lunch, Mercato offers a prix fixe special at $15 until 3:30 p.m. as well as an engaging selection of panini priced from $9 to $12. These hot pressed sandwiches are made with brick-oven baked dough, and there are two veggie versions besides those heaped with ham, prosciutto, chicken or meatballs.
There are about a half dozen desserts, including a creamy, luscious ricotta cheesecake ($7) from the recipe box of Alessandro Settimi’s mother. But the wildly popular star of the dessert menu is a dessert pizza made with Nutella and fresh strawberries ($10). It’s wonderful any time of the day or night. You could take one home and have it for breakfast. The kitchen also makes (for $8) a gluten-free Nutella chocolate hazelnut cake with mascarpone cheese and whipped cream.
Mercato (which loosely translates to street market or fair) can satisfy families wanting an early meal, couples wanting a lingering dinner with good Italian wines and candlelight, date-nighters who share a number of small plates, or someone who wants to sit at the handsome bar for a craft cocktail or a sweet treat and espresso. Service is prompt and friendly, and there’s a genuine sense of hospitality and warmth. The two dining rooms (plus a 40-seat function room) are comfortable, and the kitchen does good work. You just have to favor Italian food. But judging by how many Italian restaurants pop up every year in Sarasota, most people around here do exactly that.
The Verdict: A spacious, comfortable place catering to families, couples and the date-night crowd with all kinds of Italian foods, from Roman street-market nibbles and pizzas to full entrées.
1936 Hillview St., Sarasota. (941) 365-3300
Hours: Lunch and dinner: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m. and Sunday until 11 p.m.
Gluten-free items; live entertainment in the bar on Friday and Saturday nights
Credit cards: all major cards accepted
Full bar: (bring your own wine for a $20 corkage fee)