Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bar Mercurio: Toronto's Hidden Gem

Every city has its legendary spots that everyone agrees are terrific as well as hidden gems that magically capture the mood of a neighbourhood. Bar Mercurio is such a place. A charming and unpretentious Italian trattoria, this little darling in the Annex has been serving simple Italian fare to professors, politicians and neighbourhood devotés for almost 15 years. A stylish restaurant, Bar Mercurio's allure is as much about the setting as it is about the food. 

A beautiful vase of Stargazer Lillies greet guests as they enter Bar Mercurio

Opened in 1997 by Giuseppe (Joe) Mercurio, this charming and romantic little bijou offers an extensive Italian-inspired menu featuring thin crust wood-fired pizzas, robust soups, sinfully delicious pastas as well as grilled veal chops, steak-frites and a small menu with daily specials that, the evening we visited, included Spicy Autumn Pumpkin Zuppa, Oven Baked Portobello Mushrooms topped with goat cheese and smoked salmon, and a Tender Muskovy Duck Breast Pizza Bianco with light mozzarella, asparagus spears, shallots and asiago finished with a drizzle of roasted garlic oil.

The popular marble-clad bar sits right beside Bar Mercurio's 
open-concept kitchen and wood-burning pizza oven

Each dish, from pizza to pappardelle to poussin is prepared by a two-man team in the restaurant's small open-concept kitchen, which sits beside Mercurio's popular marble clad bar, a great spot to perch, people-watch and enjoy a glass of vino from their great Tuscan-heavy wine list.

Bar Mercurio's two busy chefs hard at work, but happy to ham it up for the camera

We started our meal with two Italian classics: Beef Carpaccio with thinly sliced raw beef on a bed of wild arugula leaves topped with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and sweet roasted walnuts, and Bar Mercurio's Caesar Salad, served deconstructed with whole leaves of Romaine lettuce, dressed in a tangy garlic- anchovy dressing finished with shaved Parmigiano cheese and freshly prepared baked croutons.

Carpaccio of thinly sliced raw beef on a bed of arugula leaves topped with 
Parmigiano and roasted walnuts

Ceasar Salad with whole Romaine leaves, shaved Parmigiano cheese and baked croutons

We followed with one of Bar Mercurio's signature dishes, a bowl of pillowy house-made Potato Gnocchi swimming in a creamy gorgonzola sauce garnished with chards of tangy sun dried tomatoes; and the Pizza Neopolitana, one of their famous thin-crust pizzas, authentic and delicious, topped with a rich tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, anchovies, olives and sliced red onions, and finished with a light brushing of fragrant basil-oil on the edges of the crust, making it delicious to the last bite.

Gnocchi Di Casa al'arugula in a light gorgonzola cream sauce

One of Bar Mercurio's famous thin-crust wood fired pizzas - the Neopolitana 

At the end of our meal, our server surprised us with a plate of two warm biscotti - one chocolate and one almond - drizzled in warm chocolate sauce and garnished with fresh blueberries and a lovely big strawberry, nestled in a luscious vanilla cream sauce. Thanking him for his gracious gesture, he said we looked like we were celebrating something and he wanted to crown our meal with a treat! We'd actually just come from the Jared Diamond lecture at the ROM and having been to Bar Mercurio once before, I wanted to show my husband what a special spot it was. Needless to say, our lovely server 'sealed the deal'. 

Our surprise dolce from our server at Bar Mercurio

Across the street is Bar Mercurio's offshoot, L'Espresso, a U of T and neighbourhood favourite since opening in 2005, featuring a full line-up of authentic Italian dishes, pastries, panini, savoury crepes, homemade biscotti and superb espresso coffee and line of take-out beans. Open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, their weekend brunch even has live music. If you find yourself shopping along Bloor Street, visiting the Bata Shoe Museum or nearby ROM, treat yourself to some Giuseppe and Albino Mercurio's fine Italian cuisine and old world hospitality, and you'll discover one Toronto's little gems.

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