"I have a chef friend who's eaten here four straight nights," exclaims the woman at the table next to mine. The statement is meant to astonish, but the server merely nods. Had the woman said, "I have a chef friend who liquidated his 401(k) so he can eat here every night for the next four years," the reaction might have been the same.
Pizzeria Mercato, the Barker family's first post-Magnolia Grill venture, is a buzzy, pricey, James Beard-caliber departure from Carrboro's earthy, earnest somnolence. Malfunctioning electrical transformers and Hollywood cellphones are this sort of buzzy.
On a Thursday night at eight p.m., a five-deep throng clogs the entranceway. Heads swivel and crane to catch glimpses of charred pizzas in transit on metal trays. Nobody tentatively wonders if Elmo's is busy or recalls being told that Akai Hana is OK or even checks the time. "Ooh, what was that?" is the sum of conversation.
Mercato is another exercise in industrial shabby-chic. In addition to the obligatory open kitchen with ringside seating, there are butcher-block tables, distressed wood benches, ducts and wires dangling from the corrugated metal ceiling, and cinder block walls. By way of artwork, three enormous montages of tin hang, as if in salute to the patchwork tenements of Brazil or Taiwan.
The cuisine must—and does— warm a rather cold room.
Named in honor of the nearby farmers market, Mercato focuses on soundness and simplicity. You can close your eyes and trust that the Italian verities have not been cross-pollinated, trend-aligned, prostituted to the Olive Garden palate, or otherwise forced to crawl through the dust like the bad guy in the final minute of a spaghetti western. As the midweek mob scene attests, the pizzas are very good.
But how good?
There are now five Triangle pizzerias worthy of my attention. Like a medieval theologian contemplating the hierarchy of angels, I rank them this way: Napoli, a Carrboro-based food truck and presumable Dantean inferno during the summer; Pompieri Pizza, the Durham sister restaurant of the crowd-pleasing Bull City Burger; Mercato, a Carrboro hot spot, a phrase no longer oxymoronic; Capp's Apizza, a Pittsboro-based trailer-oven; and Pizzeria Toro, a modish Durham trattoria with an unfortunate propensity to catch fire.
Five years ago, I would have braved a hailstorm of razor blades to eat Mercato's pies. But now, they aren't even the best on the block—that laurel goes to Napoli, which camps a few hundred yards down Weaver Street. If one artisanal pizzeria is a godsend, five are a commandment: Thou shalt not eat reheated strip mall slices!
Unlike its peers, Mercato rejects the cult of the wood-burning oven. While Napoli's penny-encrusted monster reportedly exceeds nine hundred degrees, Mercato's gas-fired, brick-lined twins hover at 725. They're hot enough, in any case, to disgorge pizzas gorgeously charred and bubbling, with puddles of molten mozzarella shifting slightly in steaming slicks of tomato puree. The note of Hadean smoke is missing, but a general volcanism remains operative.
Gabe Barker, the son of Magnolia's Ben and Karen Barker, cut his teeth at San Francisco's Pizzeria Delfina. He masterminded Mercato's crust. While Napoli and its ilk emulate the Neapolitan crust, with its soft texture and black mottle, Mercato serves a chewier Neapolitan-New York hybrid. It combines Caputo "OO" flour, King Arthur bread flour, and a sourdough starter that Karen Barker has maintained continuously since 1990. "The starter has gone on vacation with us, gone to the beach with us," says Ben, with the note of affection, amazement, and resignation usually reserved for geriatric cats.
Mercato's crust is thin, crisp, and ringed with a puffy cornice. If you're lucky, blackened gluten-bubbles swell here and there. An initial crunch gives way to a bready medium-chew. Despite its thinness, this crust triumphs over the central sogginess to which even Napoli's exceptional pizzas succumb. The explanation is presumably the admixture of high-gluten flour.
Among Mercato's seven pizzas—margherita, funghi, carbonara, etc.—the mustard green pie is the minor revelation. The faintly bitter greens surprisingly jibe with the fennel sausage, while what seems to be a thin layer of béchamel tempers the toppings' aromatic interplay. The puttanesca is the menu's hardest sell. Acknowledging anchovy as a difficult taste that must be embraced on its own terms, I did not relish the hyper-saline combination of anchovies, olives, and capers. The formaggi misti, Mercato's closest approach to a conventional cheese pizza, is the obvious kid-quieter.
At its best, Mercato's antipasti and salads rival Toro's consistently exquisite accompaniments. The crostini with squash puree, ricotta, onion marmalade, and sultanas—for me, the highlight of the entire menu—reprise Magnolia Grill's assured touch with seemingly incongruous ingredients. At once crisp and melting, the arancini—golden-fried orbs of carnaroli rice and pimento cheese—are the best I've ever tasted, far surpassing Pompieri's heavy and sometimes cold-centered version. The accompanying lemon aioli feels like another Magnolia Grill throwback. A notable subtlety elevates even this simple mayonnaise. Wishing for grilled asparagus spears or undressed eggs Benedict, I paid homage with a furtive forefinger.
The polenta with roasted mushrooms, parmesan, and chives is like a beatified bowl of grits. Though expensive at $10, the dish's silky lacings of flavor mute one's tendency to grumble at the price. The house-marinated olives will permanently sabotage your taste for jarred, but a ramekin of forty is a head-scratcher. I recommend a take-away box and a month of Mercato martinis. Less appealing is the pasta e fagioli, a thick, University of Tennessee-orange bean puree buoying a few conchiglie rigate. It's salty and mired in the mundanity of its main ingredient.
The "piatti"—meatballs, grilled quail, cavatappi with pork ragu—are lyric little descants, but in an artisanal pizzeria, they are incidental. At $13–$15, they are not particularly good bargains, either. The quail is scrumptious but, alas, dispatched in three bites of five bucks each.
UNC parents in from New York or LA won't mind, or even take note of, these prices, but Elmo's and Tyler's regulars may flinch at the tab. My medium-hungry family of three had no trouble dropping $65. A few drinks and a reasonable tip bring the total to a Toro-reminiscent $90–$100.
Will I return to Mercato? Yes, as volition has nothing to do with it. Recall a tranced Bugs Bunny wafting through the air on the scent of a carrot—that's me on my way to Mercato.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pie and Mighty"