Italian-inspired excellence at Downtown Ithaca's Mercato Bar & Kitchen

October 11, 2012

We're enjoying a repeat visit to Mercato Bar & Kitchen in downtown Ithaca this week. After a couple of years gaining momentum, this Aurora Street eatery has became a solid favorite, offering a creative Italian-inspired menu, terrific attention to detail, and masterfully prepared food.

We like to start with a hearty cocktail at the beautiful bar, such as a Lion's Tail, a Manhattan-like drink featuring Maker's Mark bourbon with allspice liqueur, lime juice, and agave nectar for a dash of sweetness. The cocktail menu leans toward the classic, featuring the gin and whisky concoctions of decades gone by, but Mercato's skilled bartenders can make just about anything at their full bar.

Beyond the cocktails are over a dozen wine selections at just $8 a glass and $25 a bottle, and a couple dozen more featured wines at higher but still reasonable prices, including some excellent Finger Lakes wines as well as nice Italian picks. We've been very happy with the $25 bottle options on multiple visits, including Sheldrake Point's fine Riesling and a Sicilian Syrah from Fatascià Winery.

On the appetizer menu, the chicken liver and pickled red onion crostini were a nice surprise, the pickled onion offering a bright contrast to the chopped liver, and I've enjoyed these on nearly every visit. A crostini sampler lets you try a variety, and a cured meats & cheese plate features some mouthwatering morsels imported from Italy. My eleven-year-old cousin loved the mixed greens salad because she loves arugula -- though she may mostly love saying "arugula."

The chicken saltimbocca was tender and perfectly cooked, wrapped in a crispy layer of prosciutto, and the fresh fish in parchment paper was an exercise in simplicity and perfection, delicately seasoned fish steamed in a pouch and unwrapped at the table.

The menu changes seasonally, with fresh produce making an appearance in handmade pasta dishes. Vegetarian options vary; ask your server for suggestions, and be aware that many dishes contain a splash of chicken broth or other non-vegetarian items. 

Save room for a housemade dessert, such as the excellent fruit crostata made with seasonal fruit. This flaky-crusted single-serving tart was made with fresh pears on a recent visit. Add an espresso or explore Mercato's interesting Italian liqueurs.

Plan on spending $30-50 per person for your meal. Mercato is open for dinner Monday through Saturday starting at 5:30. Find them on Restaurant Row at 108 North Aurora Street in Downtown Ithaca, visit mercatobarandkitchen.com, or call 607-319-5171 and tell them you heard about them here.

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