By now you all know how fond I am of Italy and real Italian cooking. I have done restaurant reviews in the past, where I give you a factual play-by-play of every course, ingredient, decor and service, which is really easy when you’re not attached to a place.
Unfortunately Fortunately, that is not going to be what happens this time. This time I will tell you a story. One I am writing from the heart, which is so much harder.
About two years ago, when we returned from our trip to Italy, I ran across a tiny panini shop in back of the Red Hook Inn in Red Hook, NY. It was called Mercato Tivolio. It was closed at the time, but I made a mental note *self, you must remember to go back and check that place out*. The next time I was in town, I lucked out. It was open.
It was a cute little place, with just a few rustic tables, authentic Italian produce, meats, cheeses, pastas, sauces and imported olive-oils for sale. They had a tiny menu with homemade soups, panini sandwiches, espresso and fresh-baked cookies and biscotti. The food was outstanding. I told many friends, my family and of course, Chris about it. We all had started to frequent it.
One lazy afternoon, Chris and I dropped by and started chatting with Francesco, the owner. He is from Rome. We told him of our vacation, and our love for Italy…the food …the people. We must have been describing our stay in Positano because somehow limoncello entered the conversation.
“Ah, you like limoncello?”, he asks.
As our heads begin nodding up and down, he disappears into the back and comes out with a bottle of homemade limoncello, and proceeds to pour us each a glass. We sip the liquid gold as we chat some more and he shares his secret recipe with us. We practice speaking some Italian, he is game. This all takes place while his other half Michele (who is the other owner) is busy waiting on other customers and watching their little baby boy and dog, who are adorably toddling around. Everyone is there. They are all smiling, having fun, doing what they love. Feels like Italy to me. From that day on, it was no longer just the little panini shop -they were now like friends.
For the next few months, we visit when we can (never often enough). Always greeted with a smile and “Ciao, ciao”. Until one fateful day last year when they told us they were closing. Oh God No!!
The good news was that they were looking for a bigger space, still had not found one, but they assured us not to worry – they would open again. Crisis averted. So from last July 2006, we patiently waited, praying, that we would soon hear of their new Grand Opening, and that it wasn’t in say, Alaska!
We heard nothing. We waited some more. Still nothing. Finally, just when we were about to give up, it arrived. A postcard announcing their Grand Opening of Mercato Osteria. The best news, their new space – an osteria, cafe and wine bar – would still be located in Red Hook. We waste no time visiting and run right up opening week.
The new location is wonderful. The walls are a buttery lemon yellow, the space holds dark wood tables, a small bar with stools for a quick nosh or glass of wine, a front porch with a few tables, perfect for summer nights, and the best part – an open kitchen where you can watch Francesco cook.
I’ll admit, the first time we came for an all out meal, a thought did cross my mind. “Geez, I hope he can cook!” After all, making panini is so very different from running a full-fledged Italian restaurant. But, keeping in mind that he is the 6th generation Buitoni pasta family, straight from Italy, where he learned to cook with his Grandmother and his recent stint as a wine sommelier for Mario Batali at one of his NYC restaurants, all doubts should be assuaged.
Just as in Italy, all of the ingredients are fresh and locally grown. The herbs are snipped fresh from the garden. The pasta, homemade. In fact, on one of our visits, we watched him plunk down a giant pasta machine gizmo (weighing in at about 50 lbs) on his prep table and feed a lump of spinach pasta dough into said gizmo about 10 times until it resembled a silk train on a bride’s wedding dress – all in the span of about 3 minutes.
Then with a few quick flicks of a knife (perhaps he was Zorro in a former life) and a dusting of flour, he tosses the fat sage green noodles a few times and piles them into a container awaiting a sauce for tonight’s dinner service. It was at this point that I no longer worried about his cooking. That boy has some skills! I stared and drooled in amazement, as this would have taken me the better part of a day and that smooth silk sheet would have wound up looking more like the veil over my face, rather than the train.
Because everything is fresh, the menu changes daily. It is handwritten in white chalk on the backboard, and as somethings runs out, it quickly gets crossed off the board. Better luck next time.
Lunch is still soups, paninis and pasta, typical cafe fare. For dinner you’ll find antipasti and salads for starters. Primi (first course) consists of risotto and pastas-most of them are homemade. Secondi (second course) is a selection of the freshest fish, chicken and steak, or whatever looks good at the market.
And of course, dessert. There is always a delicious homemade tiramisu on offer, as well as biscotti.
If you’re lucky, you may get to sample the ricotta cheesecake, which doesn’t even make it to the menu. The wait staff casually mentions that it just came out of the oven.
All of his sauces are delicious. Mouth-watering. Squisito. The local ingredients are divine. The pasta is cooked al-dente, perfetto! The wines, which just arrived in August, are a wonderful compliment to the food.
I can tell you wholeheartedly that I just love this place! If I can’t get to Italy, it is here that I come for a true Italian meal and experience. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone…and I have. Friends and family who have gone, just can’t say enough good things. And they can’t wait to return.
Mind you, this is not a 5-star Michelin rated fine dining experience that I would recommend for a once in a lifetime romantic dinner for two. It’s nothing like that. But that is what I like about it. It’s friendly, it’s loud, it’s convivial. Everyone is laughing, clinking glasses, having a good time, enjoying their food. It’s not snobby or pretentious. There are no rules. Grab a glass of wine at the bar. An espresso and a biscotti. A salad and a panini. Sit down for a full-blown 4-course meal, whatever. It’s just easy.
You’ll see Francesco cooking, Michele waiting tables and making reservations with their newest addition, a 6-month-old son on her hip (I don’t know how she does it) and his older brother, now 3, weaving from table to table, chatting up the customers. Francesco’s Aunt Mietta is there from Rome, tending the garden out front, taking the kids and dog for a much-needed walk or busing tables when it gets busy.
She was delightful, telling me stories of Rome and when Francesco was a baby in New York City. Toward the end of my last visit there, I went up to say ‘ciao’ to him while he was cooking. He asked me what I had to eat. When he found out I did not have any of the fresh mozzarella di bufula, he lopped off a chunk and gave it to me to savor while I took his picture. Oh, how it just melted in my mouth.
At its simplest, it is a great place to eat fabulously fresh Italian food, in an authentic Italian atmosphere. But as you peel away the layers you realize you are part of so much more. You are a part in making someone’s dream come true. A dream that involves family and the good life. Though they are feeding you, you are feeding his passion for cooking, for creating, for his country. And it feels good knowing that.
And though you always leave full from the incredible meal you have just eaten, your heart is full knowing you are supporting a local business and for helping this couple care for their quickly expanding family and for making dreams come true. Here, you are not just a customer, you are a friend. You are famiglia. And you won’t find that at any Olive Garden.
61 East Market Street
Red Hook,NY 12571
>I recommend reservations