155 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 475-7777, mercatosrestaurant.com. Serving lunch 11:30-2:30 daily, dinner 2:30-9. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: traditional Italian
Entrée price range: $11 (pasta with marinara) to $19 (haddock gorgonzola)
Ambiance: traditional Italian
It’s an unlikely enough story to give it charm: Five years ago, Tony Celik was working across the street from Mercato’s, lunching there almost daily, when he learned it was for sale. A native of Turkey, trained as an accountant, he launched himself into the restaurant business and pledged to remain true to the Italian menu that he’d enjoyed so much.
He brought his brother, Ayhan, to this country. Ayhan went through the culinary program at Schenectady County Community College. The brothers continue to operate Mercato’s—no sense changing its name—with other members of their family. You can feel the sense of family about the place.
We’d heard from some Delmar friends that it was worth checking out, but another red-sauce joint? Not to sound too jaded, but . . . all right, I’m jaded. And I couldn’t have been dealt a more effective comeuppance than from the meat sauce accompanying the lasagne ($13.75) I ordered.
I’ve had great meat sauce. I make great meat sauce. This was one of the best. There’s no use trying to generalize about the ethnicities involved. You have an affinity for cooking or you don’t, whether you gained it from a grandma, a chef, a cookbook or your own curiosity.
The Mercato’s menu covers familiar ground. There’s a dual identity of pizzeria, with a busy to-go window, and sit-down full-meal establishment. We can’t report on the pizza, yet, but there was little disappointment with what we did select.
An incongruous starter is what’s termed “Better-Than-Cape-Cod Clam Chowder” ($5), which certainly gives what’s served on that island a run for its (typically inflated) money. There’s a lot of cream in this soup, but also a lot of flavor. It’s a good balance, probably achieved at more expense than Hyannis prefers.
Fried calamari ($9) always beckons, but domestic peace demands that you accede to your daughter’s suggestion of the probably less-caloric calamari al Mercato ($10), which simmers the seafood in a buttery white wine sauce. Tomatoes and garlic dominate the brew, an excellent range of flavors marred only by the rubbery nature of overcooked squid. It really needs to come off the heat quickly.
Should you accept the offer of garlic bread to start, it’ll run you $4. Otherwise, you’ll be served a portion of crusty Italian bread. With any luck, you won’t have a health-fervent daughter counting the slices you attempt to ingest. Other starters include fried mozzarella with marinara ($7), stuffed mushrooms ($7), mussels marinara ($9) and a $12 sampler plate with much of the above. And there’s always pasta e fagioli ($5).
We know we can count on a good Italian restaurant for good salads, and the spinach salad ($10) sports hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers—and a crunchy topping of bacon, easy for a dietary fusspot to put to one side. Other salad options include an antipasto for $10, Caesar for $8 (add chicken for $2), Mediterranean, with feta and pepperoncini in the mix ($10) and a classic Chef’s for $10.
Entrée pricing is insanely generous. There’s a New York strip for $18, which is the same price as the various veal dishes, including piccata, parmigiana, Sorrento, Marsala and pizzaiola—and each of those is available with chicken for $16.
My wife, the poultry fiend, chose chicken orange ($16), the breast meat prepared with an egg batter and served in a comparatively light vodka-orange sauce. But there’s much else going on here: roasted red peppers, a few strips of asparagus, a coating of cheese, and a choice of pasta on which to enjoy it. Not surprisingly, it provided material for another meal.
Other pasta dishes include simple presentations with marinara ($11) or meat sauce ($14), baked ziti, manicotti or cheese ravioli ($12). Add a meatball or sausage for two bucks. A classic, cream-rich sauce figures in the fettuccine carbonara ($15) and fettuccine chicken Alfredo ($16).
Fish and chips ($16) is the unexpected lead-off to the seafood part of the menu, with the option of pasta instead of fries; also available are mussels marinara ($18), shrimp parmigiana or scampi ($18) and salmon or haddock piccata, Veneziano (asparagus, mushrooms, roasted red peppers) or al Mercato (mushrooms and artichoke hearts in vodka sauce), each for $19.
Ayhan was our server, attentive and helpful throughout, sincerely interested in our reactions to the food. We watched similar care lavished on the neighbors at nearby tables, most of whom, Ayhan told us, were regular customers. And he very gently suggested that my next visit would seriously be incomplete without trying the restaurant’s signature dish, chicken gorgonzola ($16), which includes fresh spinach, roasted red peppers and marinara along with the cheese.
And then we met Tony, who told us his tale of acquiring the restaurant. “I can’t live without pasta!” he declared. “I can’t live without cheese!” For my next visit, I’m ditching my family and dining with him.