Mercato has to be one of the most popular restaurants in the city. So popular, in fact, that despite the fact that I worked down the block from the original location in Mission for more than a year, I only ever ate there once. One day, which was a holiday, but non-stat, so less than 40 per cent of the businesses in the neighbourhood were open, they were so busy that two of us still couldn’t get in for lunch without a reservation.
Fast-forward a few years, and the original location is still difficult to get into, but there’s an answer on the west side of town – the new Mercato location in Aspen Woods. One recent Saturday a friend suggested we check it out. I thought “Fat chance – a reservation for the same night, on a weekend?” Lo and behold, to my surprise – we got a reservation and off we went.
A note for those of you who had similar difficulties getting into Mercato and may not be familiar with their menu - most items are served family style. Those that aren’t are noted, and it’s important to know this or you’ll wind up with way more food than you need. The two of us ordered two appetizers and one family-style pasta, and were still left with enough leftovers for two lunches.
To start, we ordered the prosciutto parma and the arancini. The prosciutto is served with parmigiano reggiano shards, and impossibly skinny breadsticks. If your group is the type that normally orders a charcuterie platter – you’ll love this. The prosciutto is fabulous, not too fatty, and the portion is huge. The only complaint I have is that the idea is that you’re supposed to wrap the meat around the breadstick and eat it that way, and the portions are in no way properly sized for this. You’re given a mountain of meat, and few breadsticks.
The portion of the arancini is also generous. One order consists of three deep-fried, breaded risotto balls bigger than my fist. Each one is stuffed with mozzarella and served in a pomodoro sauce. Since they put the arancini on a bed of the sauce, rather than dousing them in it, they retain the contrast between the crispy outside and the ooey-gooey risotto-and-cheese centre.
For our main, we shared the bucatini. Now, pasta gets a bad rap for being unhealthy, but one like this really isn’t. Chock full of artichokes and spinach, and dressed simply with aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil) and shards of pecorino romano cheese, the dish was a nice mix of sweet and salty, a kind of summery pasta. Now, I love me a cream-based sauce, and am not about to start knocking them, but this dish really didn’t need one – it was flavourful enough on its own.
The Aspen Woods location is, from what I can tell, quite similar to the Mission original in terms of layout, with both a restaurant and a ‘market’ side. That said, it appears to seat more people, and obviously, the parking situation is an improvement from 4th Street. Prices seem to be comparable as well – certainly not cheap, but when you factor in the amount of food you’re getting, definitely lower than some other high-end Italian restaurants across the city.
Note: We visited before the Calgary flood that destroyed much of Mission. I’m not sure exactly how much damage the original Mercato location suffered, but those of you who loved it and want to support a local business while they are recovering – head west! It may make the ease of reservation-getting that I was so pleased with moot, but that, as we’ve all learned lately, is a small problem to have.
5000, 837 85 Street SW