Many public and private organizations–such as Sustainable Seafood Initiative, South Carolina Certified (Fresh on-the-menu), and Lowcountry First–have formed in recent years in South Carolina to encourage people to eat local. Mercato Italian Restaurant at 102 N. Market Street, in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, follows this local buying trend. In the spring/summer/fall months they source menu ingredients from Joseph Fields Farms (certified organic fresh herbs and lettuce) and Blackbird Farms (heirloom tomatoes and eggplant). In the winter, they source from Kurios Farms (heirloom black cherry tomatoes).
Executive Chef Eddie Moran, a Californian native and 2002 California Culinary Academy graduate, came to Mercato in January, 2009, with the intention of bringing a fresh perspective to traditional Italian dishes. He is a humble, young chef who’s face lights-up when he talks of cooking with seasonal local ingredients and less salt. The, locally caught Wreckfish dish, inspired by Charleston’s summer climate, is Chef Moran’s solution to the hot nights and steamy days. He wanted to showcase the fish’s lightness by mixing it with raw vegetables instead of the usual accompaniments.
The outside of Mercato Italian Restaurant is bright orange and inside the color continues and mixes with muted tones of browns and creams.
We were asked if we had a reservation as we walked into the softly lit foyer. When we said no, the hostess immediately sat us in a leather bound booth across from an elegant bar lined with chattering patrons standing shoulder to shoulder and swaying to the songs of a live jazz singer.
Our server was tending tables stretching the entire length of the first floor. He seemed overwhelmed, yet still managed to make us feel like we were his only customers. He never once wrote anything down, yet delivering our dishes correctly in perfect order. He had an excellent working knowledge of which dishes had the most South Carolina grown ingredients in them.
We ordered a shot of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka ($7.50) made with tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation, Mercato Spring salad ($6.95), Tuscan White bean soup ($6.95), Local Wreckfish ($28.95) and Pork Osso Bucco ($22.95).
Small, slightly crisp slices of bread along with green tasting olive oil came with our bread plate. Then came the most delicious vodka I have ever had; chilled Firefly that tasted more like a Long Island ice-tea than vodka.
The Mercato salad was gorgeously light with a mix of fresh fennel, cherry tomatoes, spring mix and micro thin strips of radish. The vinaigrette made with the same olive oil as on the bread plate, went well with the flavors of the vegetables.
My thick, pureed soup of white beans, bacon, and truffle oil was too salty for my taste but my husband loved it.
The succulent Wreckfish had been pan seared, and came with crunchy fresh cucumbers, flavorful heirloom tomatoes and a cucumber gazpacho infused with garlic, parsley, chili pepper, and Thai basil mixed. My least favorite part was the razor clam sitting on top because it was gritty, putting me off its sun-dried tomato and lemon filling.
My husband’s Osso Bucco dish was more a work of art than anything else with a shank of pork set vertically on a mound of Anson Mills (Wadmalaw Island, S.C.) creamy polenta (Infused with parmesan and pine nuts), and topped with crispy fried shallot rings and micro-green herbs.
For dessert we ordered a Panna Cotta ($7) made with cream and gelatin, and a cup of decaf coffee ($2).
Our translucent lemon flavored panna cotta was surrounded by fresh strawberries and grape must. It was a perfect end to the best meal we had had in Charleston, in our short stay.
The next time we are in Charleston, South Carolina, we plan to stop by Mercato Italian Restaurant again, and see what new dishes Chef Marion is creating with local seasonal produce.
Reservations suggested, parking in city lots just around the corner, takes all major credit cards.
Mercato Italian Restaurant, 102 North Market St., Charleston, S.C., 29401
Phone: 843-722-6393 Hours: Sun. – Thurs. 5 to 11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.