First impression: Unassuming doesn't begin to describe Il Mercato's location in the back of a shopping plaza behind a Publix and next door to a lab test franchise. Order a meal from the internationally inspired menu — with shockingly low prices — and you realize this is the neighborhood gem you've been looking for.
Background: Ownership is split between Emily and Michael Lynch and her stepfather, Michele D'Antoni, who's in charge of the house-made gelato and the eggplant parmesan on the menu. Emily's childhood upbringing in Bavaria shows in several dishes (spaetzle and schnitzel), but she was also sous chef at Govind Armstrong's now shuttered Table 8 in Miami Beach. Michael, sommelier at Table 8, is in charge of the wine program and the front of the house. They opened Il Mercato in July 2010.
Ambience: Nothing fancy. This unpretentious 60-seater has 36 seats inside a former greeting card shop. The outside tables seem to have come directly from Home Depot.
Starters: Think of Fresh herb spaetzle ($6) as Bavarian macaroni and cheese: herb-infused egg noodles mixed with gruyere and caramelized onions. Crispy calamari ($8) takes on an Asian hue with accompanying pickled red chili, grilled bok choy and sesame soy vinaigrette. Mussels ($9) are steamed in a tomato/chardonnay broth with garlic and scallions. Chickpea salad ($9) — with lightly toasted chickpeas tomato, cucumber, pickled red onion and yogurt dressing — was a refreshing salad course for three.
Entree excellence: All entrees are available in half or full portions, which is an economical way for a group to sample several dishes. Plates are well-presented, but like the decor, the food isn't pretentious. Very good Crispy seared pork shoulder ($11 half/$17 full) comes with a mild chili barbecue sauce, grilled polenta and sesame slaw. Grilled shrimp ($13 half/$19 full) gets mixed into a pleasant quinoa salad of asparagus, tomato coulis and shaved fennel. A generous salmon filet ($13 half/$19 full) is sesame seared and served with barley, peas, scallions, mushroom soy sauce and bok choy. The menu changes at least four times a year, but you know this year-old restaurant is a hit when customers already insist that three dishes never go: spaghetti with pancetta ($10 half/$16 full); gnocchi with beef short rib ragout ($12 half/$18 full) and chicken schnitzel ($12 half/$18 full).
Sweet!: It's hard to resist D'Antoni's gelato, especially when it's offered in the five-scoop Mercato Sundae ($12) with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and biscotti. Try the very good apple strudel with a scoop of vanilla ($7). There's also house-made tiramisu ($5), chocolate pot de crème ($4.50) and a ricotta praline cannoli ($3.50).
Service: Very good. Although with food this great, I'd expect the staff to be able to describe dishes and make recommendations
Liquid assets: Like the menu, the wine list is exceptionally well priced. There's nothing more than $100. Second bottles and bottles to take home are 20 percent off the wine list price. They'll also order wine for you.
The key to keeping price low: "It's a small enough place that we don't have a lot of staff in the kitchen," says Emily Lynch. "And we don't have a chef to pay lots of money to. I just make a regular wage. I'm also shopping wisely and we don't have the linens to deal with. We keep it simple in as many ways as possible."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times