Mercato

352 W 39th StNew York, NY 10018 • (212) 643-2000 • mercatonyc.com

Mercato is located in a very weird area by all accounts, so there’s virtually no reason to go there. And after reading this review, there’s even one less reason than that.

Sure, the décor is cute, but the service is not. In fact, it’s kinda frustrating, because they disappear on you, they don’t listen and they are terrible with the recommendations. Plus, they are arrogant, acting as if they are serving up the second coming. Well, I have news for them, only one out of seven dishes was even just okay, making it the worst hit ratio I’ve seen in New York in a very long time. How Yelper’s gave this four stars is everything wrong with Yelp and why I left to start this blog in the first place.

As for the okay dish, it’s the rigatoni, but only if you blanket the thing with black pepper, crushed red pepper and parmesan. I’d go into more detail and list some of the other dishes not to get, but that would be pretty much all of them. From the stale bread on the table to the bland wine to the olives to the starters and entrees, it was lineup filled with more misses than the Three Blind Mice playing tag. Spare yourself the disappointment unless slimy octopus and airplane quality food are your thing, because Mercato is a resounding one knifer.

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Bacaro

136 Division StNew York, NY 10002 • (212) 941-5060 • bacaronyc.com

Bacaro is like Don Juan in restaurant form, dripping with romance and charm (pictured). But sadly, this quaint veneer is all built around one dish, the gnocceti. And if you stick with that and a glass of wine, you will think this place is the cat’s pajamas. But should venture beyond it, you will soon find that the emperor has no clothes.

All three starters were non-starters for me. The asparagus with egg and grana was relatively bland. The caprese was served with mealy tomatoes. And the spicy meatballs, while the best of the trio, weren’t all that spicy- or meaty, for that matter.

The other two entrées I tried were equal parts letdown, the duck ragu was dry and lacking complexity and the pork shank over soft polenta also left me wanting more depth of flavor.

Hell, even the wine was disappointing as was the service, asking us to leave after only 2 hours at our table. Blasphemy!

Flirting with disaster, Bacaro raised the Titanic with a strong Tiramisu to just barely eke out a second knife.

Buca

604 King Street WToronto, ON M5V 1M6 Canada • (416) 865-1600 • buca.ca/king.html
 

I hadn’t been to Toronto in over a decade, but I remember having some great meals there. In fact, if you ever read my review of Mercer Kitchen, then you will know that it was the sushi pizza from Toronto that is somewhat responsible for finding my wife. So, it probably goes without saying that I didn’t really need another reason to love the Toronto food scene more than I already do, but then Buca happened.

An epic love story all its own, spanning across eleven rapturous dishes. It was like a scene out of Gone With the Wind- me running into the arms of antipasti, secondi and dolci… and antipasti, secondi and dolci all running into my mouth.

To start, Buca is a massive, industrial space right across the street from another strong Italian option, Gusto 101. That said, Buca is a cut above by all measures, including price tag. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t worth every last loonie.

From the get go, Buca served up more wow’s than Sam and the Firefly, starting with their salmon crudo with goat yogurt, zucchini blossoms, capers, cipollini and dill. Quickly followed delectable, little, warm rosemary, garlic and olive oil bread knots and a strong charcuterie board loaded with assorted cheeses and salumi.

And then Buca stopped playing around and brought the heat. Showing off in the most unlikely of places like a salad of mustard greens filled with berries from a local farm, dressed with goat yogurt and an olive oil of the gods.

This was then chased by a simple, beautiful buratta pizza. But all of this matters not, because the bigoli, aka duck egg pasta with duck offal ragu, venetian spices and mascarpone came in like the second coming and stuck the landing like Mary Lou Retton, crossbred with a cat wearing spikes on its feet.

The prime rib might’ve been the most mortal of the dishes we had or perhaps it was more a dimension of comparison, because it was served back to back with the branzino which stole the show.

For the final act, the dolci, Buca reimagined a Tiramisu with espresso soaked tapioca biscuits, mascarpone and chocolate mousse all layered deep in glass I wish was a yard in hindsight. And while the gelato was no slouch either, after that Tiramisu I could’ve just curled up in a ball and died happy.

Easily among the best Italian restaurants in the world, including Italy.

Scarpetta

355 W 14th StNew York, NY 10014 • (212) 691-0555 • scarpettarestaurants.com
 

Making many a blog’s hottest new haunts in the ole NYC, Scarpetta delivers on the adulation serving up some mighty fine Italian in a simple, classy dining room that is so loud you can barely hear your own “mmm’s”

Fortunately, I could still hear our waiter, who was Johnny on the spot with his recos. Including a phenomenal, velvety Morgan Boujelais that complemented everything from the baby tuna crudo, which was pretty great to the soft polenta with mushrooms and black truffles, which was “I don’t want to share” ridiculicious.

And then the short rib and bone marrow agnolotti (pictured) happened and everything in the world slowed down like a Planet Earth documentary. The ecstasy of every chew as palpable as plastering your blissful puss on the jumbotron in Times Square.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the black cod entrée served on a bed of caramelized fennel. It’s enough to make you want to fuck a fish.

Hell, this place even nails the basics, like their spaghetti with tomato and basil. So simple. So right.

Desert held strong as well, representing with a strong chocolate cake. In fact, the only miss (and a huge one at that) of the night came along its side in the form of one of the worst tart tatins I’ve ever laid teeth on.

But I forgive Scarpetta, because it handily restored my faith in the New York Italian restaurant scene. Again. #Blanca #Eataly #Carbone

Brick + Wood

1275 Post RdFairfield, CT 06824 • (203) 939-1400 • lovelifeandpizza.com

Mama Mia! I have to admit I was already pretty happy with the pies at Tarry Lodge in Westport, but after Brick & Wood I am a changed man. Granted Tarry is a lot easier to get into, because sadly Brick & Wood is no secret, which stands to reason once you sink your teeth into a slice of za (that’s pizza for all you non-Scrabble lovers out there). The sauce! The crust! So fresh and balanced and perfect. From plain to pepp and all the way up to fancy, like the GUMBA, billed in all-caps because it’s worth shouting about. Topped with a gorgonzola buratta (you read that correctly), that is so skillfully balanced so that the creaminess and stank live in harmony without either one overpowering the pie. A level of difficulty not to be taken for granted. Then they top it with spicy soppressata and cherry peppers to give some heat. Pair that up with a glass of their Troublemaker and you are indeed in trouble- or at least your waistline is.

Speaking of gut-busting good, the Kit Kat bread pudding is worth breaking your diet for. Hmm, perhaps that’s what they really mean with their “Gimmie a Break” jingle?

The only mortal dish of the lot, was the arugula salad with pecans and shaved parm. Which was still good, but a bit overdressed.

Also worth noting, service is very friendly and surprisingly on their game even amidst the rush. Which reminds me, they don’t take reservations so a word of advice if you don’t want to wait too long for a table, either go at an off hour or go as a couple and sit at the bar. Otherwise the wait will make you earn the meal. Fortunately, it’s very worth the wait.

Gusto 101

101 Portland St. Toronto, ON M5V 2N3 • (416) 504-9669 • gusto101.com
 

I’ve never taken a course in gusto before, but had I known the lessons were so delicious I would’ve majored in it. That’s Gusto 101. A crash-course on solid restauranteuring. From it’s open loft, hipster vibe to its tantalizing bread wall that dares you not to order it, I was sucked in like a ball of lint into a vacuum cleaner.

And damn is it good. So be sure not to heed the advice of your parents and do indeed fill up on the bread. It’s very worthy. That said, you might want to leave room for the grilled octopus because it is as remarkable in the belly as it is on the eyes (pictured). The presentation is bar none, like a painting on a wood cutting board canvas with earthy roasted potatoes and vibrant dollops abound of every sort of puree one can imagine. It is truly exceptional.

Whereas the kale salad is much more on the pedestrian side. It’s good mind you, but compared to the other things I had, you can tell this place is capable of so much more. In fact, the only reason I’m staying cautious with 3 knives is due to my limited sampling. Need to go back. Soon. Please.

Vivo

Universal CityWalk® – Orlando 6000 Universal Blvd. Orlando, FL 32819 • (407) 224-3663 • https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/vivo-italian-kitchen/index.html?__source=ban.dfa.142900316;315030842;68637547

I know it’s ridiculous to expect much from a restaurant at Universal Studios, but with places like Flying Fish Café, The Brown Derby and Kouzzina over in Disney, I figured maybe the Yelpers were onto something. Well, more like “on something.”

And while the décor is quite stylish and the service is friendly, the food is exactly what one might expect. Overcooked short rib and pastas, so mushy it defeats the purpose that they apparently make it fresh every day.

It isn’t without it’s hits though. I found the fried calamari to be quite good. As was the bread pudding. But if you truly want great Italian, do yourself a solid and make a rezzy at Prato in Winter Park. Sure it’s a bit of a drive, but remember, you put this stuff in your body. Isn’t it worth it?

Oh! One last thing I almost forgot. If you should decide to eat here anyway, do NOT sit outside. There are speakers right next door that are so blaringly loud you can feel it in your ovaries. Even if you’re a man.

Boca

43 Main StWestport, CT 06880 • (203) 557-0720 • bocawestport.com
 

Tucked away right off of the main drag in an alley adjacent to West Elm, is a bit of a sleeper with big aspirations. A two-story Italian ( I know they call themselves Mediterranean, but it’s mostly Italian), that is probably trendier than it needs to be, with staff that’s trying almost as hard as the décor. But what a view form upstairs! Overlooking the Saugatuck River. You could do worse my friend. Same goes for the food, because Boca is better than most of the Italian options in Westport, which admittedly isn’t saying a whole lot. It seems to be the one cuisine in town that isn’t nailed yet. Tarry Lodge is decent, but that’s really it (granted I hear good things about Filamente Trattoria, so TBD on that one). But if the owners of The Whelk, Kawa Ni & Jesup Hall ever decide to get in the game, count me in as an investor!

Until that happens though, Boca will have to suffice. And suffice is does with killer dishes like the lobster with soft polenta. I also found their mussels with fava beans to be damn skippy.

In the middle I’d peg the fig, goat cheese & honey bruschetta as well as the kale salad with walnuts, green apples and gorgonzola. Both are good, but come off a little too basic and/or simply lacking that wow factor, missing the boat on either texture, contrast or balance.

As for misses, steer clear of the crispy artichokes. They are overly breaded and underly sauced, netting out as unsettling balls of fried batter. We didn’t even finish a third of the dish. Fortunately my glass of red wine will help make up for the cholesterol bomb.

So, with more hits than misses, and the void that it fills in the Italian Westport scene, I’d say it’s a worthy stop. Especially if you’re in the middle of a Main Street shopping spree and you get the grumbles.

Il Leone Mastrantonio

22 Cobern Street | corner of Prestwich, Cape Town Central 8001, South Africa
+27 21 421 0071 • www.mastrantonio.com/il-leone-mastrantonio

This cozy Italian charmer is a pleasant surprise for being hell and gone from Italy. But as good as it is, I assure you it is nowhere even close to as good as the reviews make it out to be on Google and TripAdvisor. So go in with tempered expectations and I think you’ll be happy.

From the outside to the inside, the place has an inviting old-school vibe about it. Sadly, the crowd has an old-school vibe as well, so keep your voice down, because apparently at several places in Cape Town people like to eat in libraries. Luckily they don’t live in New York or they might starve. Either that or they’d live off takeout.

But I digress. In terms of the food, they kick it off right with a visit to the wine room to check out their offerings firsthand. The antipasti offerings are also solid, from the creamy buratta to the grilled octopus and bruschetta. Nothing exceptional, however. The real stars are their pastas. I had both the Bolognese and the carbonara and both hit the el spoto. Again, nowhere near Ultimate status, but for South African Italian, you could do a lot worse.

Like with dessert for example. I found their gelatos to be so lacking in flavor it was hard to tell which flavor was which, coming off more as just scoops of frozen cream.

La Casa di Nonna

41 rue Hoche 06400 CannesFrance • +33 4 97 06 33 51 • lacasadinonna.fr

Welcome to Grandma’s House, my newest Cannes crush. Yes, I suppose I have a thing for older women. Shhh! Don’t tell my wife. Actually, she has crush on Nonna too, because this place is just so damn charming. You just want to squeeze the bejesus out of its cheeks. From the servers to what they are serving, brace yourself for a healthy dose of amoré.

Whether it’s just a quick, afternoon snack over a frothy cappuccino and a wonderfully fresh-squeezed juice or a fully-fledged three-course dinner you are in for a treat, because they don’t miss. Particularly if you incorporate their chocolate ganache cake into whatever meal occasion it is. That alone is like a panacea for all of life’s troubles. Ultimate alert!

The other thing they nail eight ways ‘til Sunday is parma. I don’t know where they get it from, but oh lordy is it pigilicious! We had the melon and prosciutto starter and I think it might just be the best I’ve ever had. The melon was perfectly ripe and sweet. And that ham! I’m not even sure how to describe it, and I’ve even had the acorn-fed, quattro-legged stuff before and this is better.

The other dish the shined on the shoulders of this porky perfection was the carbonara, an Ultimate and only bested by the one at Blanca in Brooklyn, NY, mainly because of it’s superior pepperiness. But Nonna knows her shit, keeping the eggy coating just light enough to allow the pig and basil pop from the dish. And while I know basil is no-no to you purists out there, I say Nonna beats a no-no and you should try it before you deny it.

On the mortal side, I found the artichoke salad, the gnocci with tomato sauce and the spaghetti to all be, well, mortal. But nothing is bad and with THREE Ultimates, I’d put this tops on your list for your next visit to the Cote ‘d Azur. Plus, as I said before, if you end with that ganache cake, you’ll be crooning like old Dino… “When you walk down the street and you have this to eat, that’s amore!”