February 24th, 2020 Update:
Time to update this oldie but goodie. Its only been 6 years, though I’ve been doing surprise inspections on and off during that time. Why did it take me so long you may ask. Its very simple. Not much has changed. Same owners, same menu, same lentil dip they give you at the beginning of each meal, same layout I know like the back of my hand, same everything. In a city where chefs constantly feel the need to reinvent themselves every now and then, Mercato is pretty much the same its been since it opened a decade ago. BTW, does anyone really know the back of their hand well?
The location of Mercato has a lot to do with why it stays the same. In that corner of Hell’s Kitchen, they get their fare share of tourists, and theater goers, which also enables them to stay open throughout the day while many siesta-ing. But they are just far enough from the midtown hustle and bustle, and the bulk of bridge and tunnelers seeking a different kind of red sauce. Safe to say its a Hell’s Kitchen staple that stuck to its niche as a no frills Trattoria celebrating the Italian south, Puglia, Sardegna and Sicily especially.
Like with so many such Italian joints in the city, pasta here reigns supreme. The Trenette is always reliable as a light, nutty alternative to the Spaghetti al Pomodoro. I’m not as in love with it as I used to, but I still order it when I’m sharing for its interest factor. If you want something more robust, the homemade Malloreddus, tiny but potent Sardinian Cavatelli with wild boar ragu is a Mercato classic and a safe bet. Same with the Gnocchi, though I didnt have it in some time now.
Here you want to pay special attention to the specials. The Orecchiette with sausage and Maitake (Hen of the Woods) last time was possibly the most satisfying special I’ve had here. The odd inclusion of crispy dried sweet peppers didnt interfere with the joy. Dido for the slow roasted juicy pork shank. The only thing I wouldnt order again is the Tagliata (sliced steak) which rarely resembles the motherland version in most places anyway. The Semifreddo however, you just want to kiss and say “I knew it was you Semifreddo”. Or you can just eat it with a spoon like we did.
January 31, 2014 post:
I was never so eager to write a “Next Post” after that last one. But work, and a vigorous Sexual Harassment training were in the way.
What do Hell’s Kitchen, Staten Island, and Brooklyn have in common? A mafia filled history, and a lot of mediocre Italian food. Coincidentally, these are the 3 places I spend the most time in due to work and marriage constraints. But as Bob Dylan taught us “Times They are a-Changin” That’s right, changin without a “g” at the end. In the case of Hell’s Kitchen, there’s still a lot of mediocre Italian food to entertain the theater goers. But the last few years a few diamond in the rough spots emerged, biggest being Mercato on 9th and 39th.
1) Owners from Puglia, chef from day one is Sardinian, and every waiter is Italian. Yes, every single one. And if I may say, all being Italian, fairly good looking bunch as well. I dont go here for this particular reason, but perhaps a sense of belonging!
2) The menu is jam packed with Sardinian, Sicilian, Pugliese specialties (more on that later)
3) Italians love coming here. I’ve heard Italian spoken here by diners on every single visit.
4) Inside it just feels like a rustic Trattoria in Florence (and Ive been to plenty of those)
5) One of these is usually parked next door
I’ve been to Mercato about 10 times since my first time 6 months ago. I’ve taken friends, co-workers, family, family of co-workers (not an affair, just fooling around!) and I feel very comfortable recommending it on the boards. There’s nothing really outrageous about the food. Its simple, honest, and true to the regions of South Italy. While there are all sorts of goodies on the menu I come here primarily for the Primis (pasta/gnocchi)…
Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, garlic & basil – Like on a first date, before meeting the parents and answering “am I fat” questions 20 years later, you may want to take the core product for a spin. This is a very passable basic Spaghetti dish with profound freshness all around. As with many of the dishes on the menu, everything is homemade
Homemade Trenette with almonds, garlic, tomato and basil (top picture) – Possibly my favorite pasta here. Simple, intense flavors, and at $12 the best price/taste ratio. You will simply not find this anywhere else
Gnocchi in beef and pork ragu – Another one of my favorites. The gnocchi are wonderfully chewy, pillowy, and on the small side. It looks like its swimming in sauce but its firm enough to soak in just the right amount of the meat ragu. And what meat ragu it is!
Orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe, anchovies, bread crumbs, garlic and olive oil – A Pugliesi without an Orecchiette dish is like Roman without Carbonara. Its very simple, if you like anchovies get it. If you dont, dont.
Fave E Cicoria – Its the Pugliesi Hummus. Popular especially in the winter months. Purée of fava beans, chicory, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Deliciously salty and quite good
Pay special attention to the pasta specials here. Yesterday I had a terrific Cavatelli with spicy short rib ragu. Same goes for the Fusilli (below) with slow braised pork ragu I’ve enjoyed in the past
The one dish I really want to try but always get disrupted by a special is the Malloreddus which is homemade Sardinian cavatelli-like “Gnocchetti” with braised wild boar ragu
I’ve had plenty of other dishes here like the Octopus, Sardines, Tagliata (sliced steak), but chose to highlight the selective ones
352 West 39th st (9th)
Rating: 2 Zs (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Spaghetti, Trenette, Malloreddus, Gnocchi, Fave E Cicoria, Semifreddo, Pasta Specials