When Il Mercato Cafe and Wine Shop opened three years ago, it was an instant hit in Hallandale Beach, which was starved for quality restaurants. The other night, it felt more like a community clubhouse than a restaurant, with each new party air-kissing the folks they knew at other tables.
The welcome they gave each other is better than the welcome Il Mercato gives it guests. Pull the door open, and not a single staff member looks to the entrance. You stand in limbo until you're finally addressed. On two visits a month apart, the restaurant was packed inside — it seats just 36 in what was once a greeting-card store — so we sat on the patio, where another two dozen seats are located.
Did I mention that Il Mercato is tucked inside a plaza next to a Publix? And that the only sign is a collapsible chalkboard on the sidewalk?
Once you find the restaurant and you've caught the attention of one of the perpetually stretched servers, things run smoothly.
The menu would have once been called international, but now is just what we Americans eat. It's divided into four sections: small plates, salads, pasta specialties and main courses. But even the main courses can be had in half or full-size portions.
Beef tacos ($10 for two) — soft flour tortillas filled with tender short ribs, sour cream, red onions, cilantro, radish and red-chili salsa — are excellent. The short ribs are tender, but still hold their shape. Il Mercato makes some of the best calamari ($11) around, but I wish it were served with a sauce. Instead, the mostly greaseless rounds of crispiness are served in a bowl with pickled red-chili rings, grilled bok choy, chives and the smallest amount of sesame soy vin. You have to dig around for the sesame.
A chickpea salad ($9) features tomato, cucumber, pickled red onion, mixed greens and a yogurt dressing that needs a stronger flavor for this dish to succeed.
From the pasta section, lasagna Bolognese ($12 half/$18 full) may get too much of its cinnamon-scented creaminess from mozzarella and Parmigiano, but that's just fine. Penne arrabbiata ($11 half/$16 full) is spicy from chile flakes. The serving size — we ordered a full — for each pasta dish is on the small side.
Forget Sicilian eggplant Parmesan ($11 half/$18 full). It's so overcooked that it's difficult to taste the eggplant. Grilled bistro steak ($16 half/$25 full) is a skirt steak served with roasted potatoes, broccolini and Cabernet-shallot sauce. Unfortunately, the kitchen had sliced the skirt steak with the grain instead of against. It makes for a less than tender chew. My favorite entree was a sesame-crusted salmon fillet. ($15 half/$23 full). While the salmon could have used a bit more seasoning beyond sesame crust, the accompanying mixture of barley, peas, scallions and shiitake soy cream was a delight. It's nice to see barley get the attention it deserves.
Wine is a big part of the Il Mercato experience and the list is surprisingly deep for such an unassuming location. Nothing is more than $100, and the restaurant often runs half-off specials. It also serves Bitburger beer ($5) on draft, which is nice on the very hot patio.
Il Mercato is uneven, but there's enough here that I'd recommend checking it out when you're in the neighborhood.
1454 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd., Hallandale Beach
Cuisine: Eclectic American
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot