A tiny hutong eatery serving authentic Italian cuisine and small selection of well-chosen Italian wines. Be sure to check out its Liangmaqiao sister restaurant Fiume, from the same chef and owner.
It’s easy to imagine any of the eight tables in the tiny dining room of Mercante being found in a local Mediterranean neighbourhood, where a petite Italian grandmother stirs a pot of polenta or cranks out sheets of fresh pasta. But who you’ll find in this hutong restaurant near Houhai is not Nonna, but her passionate cook of a grandson.
‘I am very happy,’ says Italian-accented Omar Maseroli when asked about his transition from a day job pushing Excel sheets to recreating the dishes he grew up eating in Emilia-Romagna. His cooking should also make you happy.
Mercante is the realisation of Maseroli and his business partners, who comprise his Chinese girlfriend Yuan Yuan and a couple of Italian friends. None has any restaurant experience (two are engineers, the other’s in fashion), but they clearly know about eating well and sharing their love of food.
The menu at Mercante is just like the way trattoria menus ought to be, beginning with home-made ricotta with celery (32RMB), a creamy and delicious reminder of just how simple good things can be when paired with the right vegetable and a confetti-toss of mixed raisins. When you nibble the last of those, more raisins are brought out, and when you finish those, still more are offered. That luscious ricotta magic reappears atop house-baked bread, as part of a trio of bruschetta (38RMB) along with other toppings of earthy olive paté and warm tomato. Italian mozzarella will only get better with summer tomatoes in the Caprese salad (68RMB), along with a drizzle of good olive oil.
Only fools would miss the handmade pastas that are the legacy of the Italian grandmothers who taught Maseroli well. Springy ribbons of pappardelle dance in a ‘ragu’ of duck or rabbit, the latter with an added kiss of tomato (both 68RMB). There are tortelli, a type of ravioli with different fillings, most liberally showered with 24-month aged Parmigiano from Maseroli’s home region. On one evening, a special version is filled with radicchio and walnut (68RMB) and a decadent gorgonzola sauce that vies with those on the regular menu. A beef filet (128RMB), scored with grill marks, comes with a golden corn pudding and sweet wine-glazed shallots. A crunch of hand-carried Cervian sea salt, from the coast near Maseroli’s home, gives a briny crunch against a tender and juicy centre. The beef is from Kerchin, a certified organic Inner Mongolian cattle farm, and has all the notes of a good steak.
Be prepared: you’re likely to wait for your dinner. Good things require patience, so be selective in the company you bring to Mercante. In between sips of house red wine from Montepulciano (40RMB per glass) or a bottle from a reasonably priced selection of good table reds (138-598RMB), or even the bubbly sweetness of Lambrusco (138RMB), there’s a lesson in the art of the table. Eventually you’ll learn to just enjoy the evening.
An excellent finish is best done with the humble dessert trio (58RMB) that brings a perfect panna cotta with just the right wiggle, a compact slab of a custardy rice torte, and a boozey, chocolatey tiramisu. The only coffee available is moka (15RMB) from a small Bialetti that hisses on an electric stove, bringing memories of its home in Italy. When you come for dinner, don’t make plans for later, other than a walk around Houhai lake or through the hutongs, because a dinner at Mercante is about conviviality and good company over a fine meal. Finally, here is a neighbourhood restaurant worth leaving your own neighbourhood to visit – and for that we say grazie.