On a recent Friday evening, my husband, Christopher, and I arrived at Mercato Osteria & Enoteca in Red Hook. As we slipped into our seats at the long marble-topped bar, the couple beside us bantered with the chef, Francesco Buitoni, across the dining room. “We’re up here for the next five weeks,” the woman said, breaking into a broad smile, “and we’re going to be here for dinner every night!”
At Mercato, the pleasures of the Italian table—good food, good wine and a welcoming atmosphere—draw diners from near and far. Come weekends, a diverse crowd waiting for tables — couples, families, Bard faculty, farmers — spills onto the porch. Perhaps it’s because Buitoni is one of the few chef-owners these days still cooking in his own kitchen.
Buitoni grew up in New York and Rome and has an intimate understanding—and appreciation—of good food. His father’s family started Buitoni Pasta in 1827 (it was sold to Nestle in 1988). As a child, he spent much time at his grandmother’s farm, north of Rome, where his Nonna Sandra prepared many meals for the family. He watched her cook. And he learned.
His passion for sharing authentic Italian food and wine morphed into a culinary career. Buitoni cooked his way through New York, from San Domenico and Teodora in Manhattan, to Stoney Creek in Tivoli (now-closed), Gigi in Rhinebeck and Ca’ Mea in Hudson. He also worked as a sommelier and manager for Mario Batali at Otto Pizzeria and Enoteca in New York City.
In December 2006, Buitoni and his wife, Michelle Platt, opened their 36-seat osteria at 61 East Market Street. In Italy, a traditional osteria is family-run, a casual and inexpensive place to enjoy a good glass of wine and simply prepared home-style dishes.
Mercato’s aesthetic, food, wine and convivial atmosphere honor the osteria spirit. The main dining room is painted a cheery yellow, votive candles grace bare tabletops, a large red chalkboard highlights specials, and the attractive bar is well stocked with Illy espresso and Italian wines. The back room, which doubles as a pasta shop, easily accommodates large parties.
Fresh, seasonal, local ingredients are the hallmark of Italian cooking. And, right now, Buitoni is in self-proclaimed paradise. “The lacinata kale from Hearty Roots is so tender—perfect for our raw kale salad. Sky Farm’s mesclun gets better and more beautiful as the summer blossoms. The haricots verts from Montgomery Place? Ridiculous! ‘Crazy Ethel’ (Barone)—as I fondly call her—brings me fragrant, spicy garlic, oozing its natural oils. And our customers drop off bushels of produce from their own gardens…awesome stuff!” he said.
Pristine seasonal ingredients are deftly translated on the menu.
I started with Mercato’s signature kale salad ($11)—an evergreen favorite—ribbons of raw, julienned kale tossed with black currants, toasted pine nuts and a scattering of finely shaved pecorino in a Champagne vinaigrette. It’s a toothsome combination—earthy greens complemented by a hint of crunch, sweet and salty. My kale, however, was a tad on the dry side, in need of another splash (or two) of the vinaigrette.
Christopher’s Sky Farm arugula salad ($10), garnished with just-picked blackberries from Montgomery Place, Parmesan Reggiano and dressed in a lemon emulsion, was fresh and light.
During our secondi, conversation came to an abrupt halt as we savored our dishes.
My branzino fillet ($24), topped with a dollop of basil pesto, was draped over a ratatouille-style quinoa salad of eggplant, roasted peppers, sugar snap peas, chives and mint. Grilled fish is frequently overcooked and dry. Not here. The fillet, delicate and thin, was flaky and tender, and the pesto added a lovely green note. My only quibble: I would have liked more than a dollop! The flavors and textures were subtle, balanced and delicious—wholly satisfying.
“This is fantastic!” Christopher exclaimed several times as he made his way through a generous portion of rigatoni all Romana ($16), bathed in creamy Chatham ricotta with local English peas and fresh mint. I had to agree. This was Italian simplicity at its seasonal best. A glass of Soave Classico (from Cantina Filippi, $10) paired brilliantly with both the pasta and branzino.
On another Saturday night, we went back for more pasta. Christopher started with insalate—Sky Farm mesclun ($12), old Chatham ewe’s blue cheese, almonds and pear, dressed in a balsamic emulsion. The mesclun tasted field-fresh, enhanced by a fine balance of flavors, by turns, sharp, sweet and nutty.
For my primi, I wanted simple and delicious and found it in the tuffoli ($16), wide, ridged tubular pasta that looks like outsized rigatoni, served with a fresh tomato-basil sauce and buffalo mozzarella. I also ordered a contorni (side) of sautéed yellow and green zucchini and onions ($6), gently tamed and sweetened by olive oil. Had I been in a vegetarian mood, I could have made a meal of it.
Christopher has a soft spot for ravioli, and Mercato’s ravioli ($17), plumped with Old Chatham sheep ricotta and spinach, and served with a silky brown butter sauce with sage, did not disappoint. The ravioli disappeared quickly, as did his glass of Nerello Mascalese ($8).
We really didn’t have room for dessert. But then we learned that an olive oil gelato ($9) was on offer. One spoonful, and I was smitten. I’ve had good gelato, but this was transcendent—smooth, creamy, unctuous, not too sweet, with a hint of vanilla bean. What’s in this ethereal gelato? “I make a basic gelato base, using local cream and my mom’s olive oil—that’s all I’m saying!” said Buitoni.
Mama Buitoni’s cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is made at her farm, located north of Rome, in the town of Civita Castellana. Her olive oil, which has made its way into many of Buitoni’s dishes, is now available for purchase—$25 for 1 liter—at Mercato, the Red Hook farmers’ market and at Montgomery Place Orchards farm stand.
Mercato Osteria & Enoteca
61 East Market Street