It hovers over the scene as night settles on Spruce Street, and the cafe windows swing open to a plume of diners swirling stemware filled with boutique olive oils and bring-their-own wines.
Little markets like the long-defunct Camac have been disappearing by the dozens from the city, as burb-sized supermarkets inhale the business and busy residents eat at home less and less. But anyone who doubts the survival of the unique intimacy of Center City life need only pop by Mercato.
Just a block and a half off Broad Street, this 38-seat charmer is a logical "theater district" stop. But like so many of the best BYOs to open in the last few years, Mercato feels like a cool neighborhood spot more than a dining destination. Only locals, I think, would put up with a no-reservations policy that can lead to long waits. And wait they do.
But it's essentially the same idea, albeit with more ambitious and Italianized food. Chef R. Evan Turney, 28, coincidentally cooked at Audrey Claire for several years before heading to Valanni, the Spruce Street restaurant-bar that Mercato's owner, George Anni, opened five years ago.
Turney's menu has more focus here than at any of his previous stops. And while it lacks the finesse to be extraordinary, it consistently delivers a level of elemental satisfaction, putting good, seasonal ingredients into appealing combinations.
Clams and mussels come piled high over a broth infused with hot pork sausage. Slow-braised goat, purchased whole in the Italian Market and marinated for days, is cooked to tender shreds, then ladled soulfully over lemon fettuccine. House-made sheets of pasta are pinched into four-corner pyramids stuffed with poached lobster and shrimp, then glossed with warm brown butter.
Mercato has one pretentious gimmick that seems forced for such a low-key place - an a la carte list of international olive oils served in miniature stemware for swirling, sniffing and color inspection. Some are worth a try for curiosity's sake, such as the organic Chilean Olave and Australian Njoi. But the $1.50-$2 supplemental fees seem petty. (What's next, paying extra for grand cru butter? Even better, how about BYOO?) Just give the guests their well-oiled perks. Or charge for something truly great. Either way, the bullet-hard little rolls are all wrong for easy dipping.
Mercato's other starters, such as the abundant antipasti, are satisfying. The platter is heaped with marinated artichokes and olives, curls of Italian soppressatta, silky prosciutto and smoky speck, thick wedges of buffalo mozzarella layered with heirloom tomatoes, and crisp bruschetta topped with anything from asparagus and pecorino to chickpeas with lemon and garlic.
The individual salads are a delight in seasonal produce. Peppery arugula pairs with the buttery puff of pastry triangles stuffed with portobellos and pecorino. Tuscan broad beans mingle with sweet beets and crunchy radishes in a snappy Chianti vinaigrette. Mercato's crab and cucumber salad brought a timbale of summer freshness - with a garnish of mint, dill and juicy grapefruit morsels that magnified the delicate sweetness of good, fresh crab.
Such elegant balance was not evident in every dish. In fact, there were a number of nagging details that seemed to keep Turney's entrees from rising above nice to notable.
I might have loved the big short rib, which balanced like a mallet of sublimely tender meat on its "mojo" bone. But its reduced veal stock gravy was so undiluted that it was too intensely salty to eat. The linguine with clams and crab offered simple pasta satisfaction, but the promised intrigue of "diavola" spice was way too tame.
The veal chop was tender and tasty, especially alongside a sweet grilled peach. But it was also a little thin for a porterhouse, its cheesy crust a little coarse - good enough, but not great, which is what I'd expect for $23.
Some of the other entrees, though, hit all the right notes. Crisp fillets of striped bass were stacked like cards over sweet-and-sour rounds of caramelized cipollini onions and a salty sheet of pancetta. Sea-fresh scallops came perfectly seared alongside a nice risotto filled with sweet peas and a whiff of truffle oil.
Turney also gave his herb-roasted chicken breast - a bellwether for any bistro with a strong regular clientele - some extra consideration, lining the crispy skin with prosciutto, then adding roasted figs and creamy polenta to the plate for surefire comfort.
For dessert, Mercato plays it cool with some brought-in (albeit excellent) gelati from Capogiro, and some nice Italian cheeses. But Turney also makes the effort to create distinctive desserts of his own, including a superbly rich mascarpone cheesecake over shortbread topped with a maple walnut sauce, a nice homemade strawberry ice cream, and a fudgy slice of milk chocolate tarte studded with toasted hazelnuts.
It's the end of a meal that wasn't perfect, but was pleasant. With a breeze slipping in from Spruce Street, and the carefree clink of glasses tracing the night, the simple joys of city life have this corner hub humming again.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.