The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
That’s the first thought that came to mind when I learned that Gabe Barker, son of James Beard Award-winning chefs Ben and Karen Barker, was opening a restaurant. Then it occurred to me that this particular apple rolled all the way to the West Coast, where he spent five years honing his culinary skills, before returning home to open Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro in February.
Barker credits his stint at San Francisco’s esteemed Pizzeria Delfina as the inspiration for his decision to focus on pizza.
I couldn’t help but wonder how well he would succeed at grafting that concept onto the contemporary Southern rootstock of Magnolia Grill, the restaurant his parents owned during his formative years.
Very well indeed, it turns out. Gabe Barker has clearly inherited a deep respect for local farmers from his father, who was a pioneer of the farm-to-fork movement long before the term was coined. That respect is reflected in the restaurant’s name (Mercato is a nod to the nearby Carrboro Farmers’ Market), and is evident throughout its seasonally evolving menu of antipasti, salads, small plates and Neapolitan-style pizzas.
But in another fundamental way, the son’s culinary philosophy is the opposite of the father’s. While Ben Barker was known for complex creations, Gabe is a proponent of simplicity.
You might say nature and nurture have both contributed to a hybrid style that, time and again, yields food that is thoroughly rewarding in its own right. And by no means are those rewards confined to the pizzas.
A few weeks ago, Barker celebrated spring with young fava beans and bright green pea greens, entwined around ricotta gnocchi (made in house, as you can assume pretty much everything is here). He scattered a rainbow of baby carrots – orange, yellow and deep purple, bourbon-glazed and roasted whole to a caramelized turn, over a cloud of whipped ricotta. He tossed a salad of Little Gem lettuce in a sheer buttermilk dressing, and showered it with walnuts, gorgonzola and gems of another sort: diced beets in hues of ruby and garnet.
More recently, a summer tomato salad was a riot of vivid colors and flavors: nine varieties of ripe local heirlooms, spangled with creamy dollops of burrata, black olive tapenade, red onion and torn basil leaves. A classic romesco sauce played brassy counterpoint to tender grilled green beans, with toasted hazelnuts playing crunchy percussion. Sun Gold tomatoes paired with white corn fresh off the cob to brighten a salad of farro piccolo in a red onion vinaigrette.
Tuna conserva, showcasing olive oil-poached N.C. yellowfin tuna against a backdrop of arugula, wax beans, new potatoes, olives, hard-boiled egg and lemon aioli was a delightful riff on a salade niçoise. Porchetta, unctuous slabs of pork punctuated with an Italian salsa verde, was primally gratifying. Neapolitan meatballs were simmered in a rich tomato sauce and served in the miniature cast iron skillet, in which they were finished in the oven.
(Note: If it’s the Italian-American experience you’re looking for, look elsewhere. Even the dishes listed under the Piatti heading fall somewhere between small plate and entree in portion. You won’t get a mountain of pasta with your meatballs here, but you will get a hefty hunk of garlic-rubbed crostini, which I assure you will come in handy for sopping up every last drop of that sauce.)
Pizzeria Mercato’s brick-lined ovens turn out some first-rate Neapolitan style pizzas, too. These gas-fired infernos can crank out 700-plus degrees – not as hot as a coal- or wood-fired oven, but hot enough that I doubt you could tell the difference in the exemplary thin, blister-charred crust that Barker and his crew consistently produce. I couldn’t.
Toppings – a mix of classics and combinations that change with the market and the chef’s inspiration – live up to the high standard of the crust. The classic margherita is the ultimate test in a pizzeria of this caliber, and Pizzeria Mercato’s rendition – fior di latte fresh mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil on a base of crushed raw tomatoes – passes with flying colors.
For all his commitment to the locavore ethic, Barker doesn’t compromise on quality. The Parmesan is 24-month-aged Reggiano, and the prosciutto is San Daniele. You’ll get both on a single pie if you take your server’s advice and add prosciutto to the Panna (a post-baking carpet of arugula and long ribbons of Parmesan on a base of tomatoes and cream).
If the superb Finocchio (house-made fennel sausage, shaved fennel and a finishing flourish fennel fronds) hasn’t returned to the menu by the time you read this, you may find consolation in the fact that you can add fennel sausage to the pie of your choice. For that matter, it couldn’t hurt to add an egg to the Speck (fior di latte, Castelvetrano olives and caramelized onions), or Fra’mani salami to the funghi (a medley of mushrooms, fontina and fresh oregano on a panna base).
Word has gotten out about Pizzeria Mercato, so don’t be surprised if there’s a wait for a table if you arrive during peak dinner hours. Be advised also that service, normally as attentive as it is invariably friendly, can suffer when the dining room gets full.
Nor should it come as a surprise that Gabe Barker’s obviously (and rightly) proud parents have come out of retirement to help out. The young chef recently joked with a friend that he’s got the only restaurant in America with a Beard Award winner working the salad station.
And all you need to know about desserts is that Karen Barker, named in 2003 by the Beard Foundation as America’s Outstanding Pastry Chef, is in charge. Buttermilk vanilla bean panna cotta; salted chocolate chip cookie (with a scoop of coffee walnut praline gelato, please); cornmeal butter pecan biscotti – you can’t go wrong, really. Sometimes she sweetens the pot with a dessert special such as the exquisitely moist lemon custard cake I scored recently. Who knows, come fall maybe she’ll be doing something with apples.
408 W. Weaver St., Carrboro; 919-967-2277
Cuisine: pizzeria, contemporary Italian
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly and attentive, can get overwhelmed when busy
Recommended: take your pick, but at least one pizza and at least one of something else
Open: Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m.
Reservations: not accepted
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.