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Restaurants: Spring Pickings at Mercato

Rural Intelligence Food by Kathryn Matthews, a lifestyles writer based in New York City and Red Hook, Dutchess County, who frequently writes about travel, health, food and leisure for the New York Times, Town & Country and O Magazine.

You know the eating is good if Italians are in the house.  And at Mercato Osteria and Enoteca in Red Hook, they’re a discreet but constant presence. See over there: the red pony-tailed, clog-wearing chef, Mario Batali, has popped in for a visit.  That raucous laughter in the back room?  That’s Frances Coppola celebrating his granddaughter Gia’s graduation from Bard with a happy clutch of family and friends.  On another night, we spot comedian and actor Mario Cantone, best known as “Anthony”, Charlotte’s high-strung wedding planner in Sex and the City, who was mellow—and all smiles—as he and several friends finished their meal.

Another glance around the jam-packed room—a diverse mix of Bard faculty, students, weekenders, locavore foodies and Italianophiles—and it’s obvious from bits of conversation drifting our way: the food and the excellent all-Italian wine list (with 12 to16 wines available by the glass) are the main draws.

Mercato’s menu changes weekly, highlighting seasonal, farm-grown produce and locally raised meats.  Right now, spring flavors bloom on your plate in myriad, delicious ways: a lovely pea shoot and frisee salad, flecked with shaved fennel, artichoke and parmesan in a truffle-emulsion vinaigrette ($11); braised artichoke hearts flavored with olive oil, garlic and mint ($9); silken pillows of handmade ravioli filled with Coach Farm ricotta and spinach with brown sage butter ($13), and whole roasted branzino, draped in garlic-studded escarole, resting upon black beluga lentils ($25).

Rural Intelligence FoodIn Italy, a traditional osteria, often found in the countryside, is usually a family-run restaurant, a casual and inexpensive place to enjoy a good glass of wine and simply prepared, home-style dishes.  It was in this spirit, in 2006, that Francesco Buitoni and his wife-and-partner, Michele Platt, transformed the space that once housed the vegetarian restaurant Luna 61 into an osteria that is as close to authentic as you can get.  Right down to the couple’s two eager helpers—their sons—Luca Matteo, 5, and Giacomo Ardemio, 3, who want to make pasta with “Papa”.  (Yes, Buitoni makes fresh pastas, such as the tagliatelle and ravioli, daily).

Weekends here are always busy, so make a reservation if you don’t want to wait.  Over several consecutive weekends, we chose to dine at the sleek Carrara marble-top bar (built by a Tivoli artisan), which gave us a bird’s eye view of the rustic-chic space, featuring cheery yellow walls, bare wooden tabletops and an open kitchen.  In the corner of the main dining room, specials are scrawled on a large red chalkboard.  The pasta shop in the back room is often the site of large celebratory parties.  And, with the first hint of warm weather, the modest porch becomes a hotspot.

“What is THAT?” I asked our server, drooling into my Prosecco as I pointed to a vertically stacked antipasti en route to its recipient.

Rural Intelligence Food“That” turned out to be a generous mess of sautéed Wiltbank Farm mushrooms, layered with fresh Coach Farm goat curd and a soft, warm wedge of polenta, on a bed of arugula and sweet roasted beets ($10).  On an unseasonably cold spring evening, it was the perfect starter—as comforting as it was delicious.  My raging hunger dulled, I savored the tagliatelle bolognese—handmade tagliatelle tossed in a long-simmered ragu of local veal, beef and pork and dusted with Grana Padano ($18). Sipping a glass of Gavi (Stefano Massone, $9), my husband set to work on a “chopped kale salad”, ribbons of kale mingled with black currants, pine nuts and pecorino shavings, dressed in a Champagne vinaigrette ($10).  He then proceeded onto a glass of Chianti Colli Senesi (Cerro, $10) and a saffron-tinged risotto, a creamy medley of prosciutto, leeks and plump wild Gulf shrimp ($23). 

Portions are just right—not Olive Garden-sized entrees, but not trendy, overpriced “small plates” either.  And the enthusiastic staff is professional, accommodating and knowledgeable about the food they’re serving and the wines they’re pouring.

If you think that Buitoni’s cooking tastes like he had a little help in his kitchen from a secret Nonna, you wouldn’t be wrong. 

Growing up in Rome and New York, he comes by his love of good food honestly.  His father’s family started Buitoni Pasta in 1827 and later purchased Perugina.  His beloved Nonna (on his mother’s side), who was originally from Bologna, had a wheat farm, just north of Rome, where Buitoni spent much of his childhood.  Nonna Sandra’s influence was profound, he says: “My grandmother taught me that if I wanted to eat well, I would have to learn how to cook.”

Luckily for us, he did.

Rural Intelligence FoodHe spent years working at various New York City restaurants, like San Domenico and Teodora, with stints as a wine rep and as a sommelier at Mario Batali’s Otto. He also made the rounds upstate, cooking at Stoney Creek (now closed) in Tivoli, Gigi’s in Rhinebeck, and Ca’ Mea in Hudson.  When it came to opening his own restaurant, the allure of the Hudson Valley proved stronger than Manhattan.  “I wanted to be in a beautiful country setting, close to farms and green markets,” he said, “because the quality of ingredients is very important to me.”

Spoken like a true Italian.

Mercato Osteria and Enoteca
61 East Market Street (Route 199)
Red Hook; 845.758.5879
Wednesday - Thursday, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Friday - Saturday, 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Sunday, 5 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Closed Monday & Tuesday

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