The first time I remember eating pizza is at a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
The crust was doughy and the sauce was sweet. The cheese was greasy and perfectly layered on top with brown bubbles that stretched like a gooey spider web.
As much as I loved that pizza, I’ve since had better. Much, much better.
Last summer I spent two months traveling and writing around Europe. Three of those eight weeks were spent in Italy where I ate pizza in Rome, Venice, Tuscany, Milan and Cinque Terre. I even received a certificate in pizza making from a tourist trap in Florence. You could say I’ve become a bit of a pizza expert since my Chuck E. Cheese days.
But there was one major problem with my newfound love for authentic Italian ‘za: How could I possibly go back to Chapel Hill and eat subpar pizza? Luckily, I didn’t have to.
I’d heard about Pizzeria Mercato long before it opened its doors in 2016. During my fall semester sophomore year, I took a food writing course as part of my requirement for the Creative Writing minor. My professor Randall Kenan was always keeping us up-to-date on the Triangle food scene. “Soon,” he said, “the James Beard Award-winning chefs from Magnolia Grill in Raleigh will be opening a pizza restaurant in Carrboro.” The class (full of foodies like myself) let out excited “oohs and ahhs.”
Since its opening, I’ve eaten at Mercato three times. Luckily, two of those times I was treated to dinner by friends’ parents, because this restaurant is EXPENSIVE for pizza.
Most recently, my friend and I went to Mercato to celebrate our upcoming graduation. In the past, I’ve ordered the margarita pizza and added a fried egg on top. If you haven’t tried a fried, runny egg on pizza before, do it. The yolk adds a creamy savoriness to the pizza and elevates the flavors of the sweet tomato sauce, charred crust and rich mozzarella. I’ve also tried the salads at Mercato, which are deliciously fresh, nuanced combinations of simple ingredients.
But, since the menu is constantly changing with the seasons and availability of local ingredients, a different pizza caught my stomach off the menu last week: a brussels sprouts pizza with fior di latte (mozzarella), panna (cream sauce) and chili oil. I knew I had to have it.
My friend and I started with our favorite appetizer, the fritti arancini (fried rice balls), which change seasonally. The current flavor is cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper, like the popular Italian pasta dish) with roasted garlic aioli dipping sauce. I’m not sure how to describe how amazing the fritti are at Mercato. They’re *perfectly* crispy, fried rice balls with rich cheese and a kick of pepper that you dip into a savory and sweet garlic sauce. The rice melts in your mouth like a good risotto. My friend said she would have been perfectly content eating two more plates of them and foregoing her pizza. In other words, don’t forget the fritti when you visit.
After the appetizers, our pizzas came out looking beautiful. She ordered the margarita pizza and added thin, crispy prosciutto. I paired my pizza with a white Italian Pecorino wine (similar to a Sauvignon Blanc), while my friend paired hers with a classically Italian Peroni beer.
The pizzas were indistinguishable in appearance and taste from the best I’d had in Italy. Mercato, however, gets major bonus points because I could order in English (my Italian is sub-par at best) and the flavor combinations aren’t afraid to stray from tradition.
So, yes, Mercato might be a little pricy if you’re used to chain restaurant pizza, but it’s worth the extra cash for the fresh, local ingredients and truly Italian flavors.
It’s certainly cheaper than a flight to Rome….
PIZZERIA MERCATO: 408 West Weaver Street, Downtown Carrboro, NC 27510, (919) 967-2277, pizzeriamercatonc.com. Open Tues – Thurs 5 pm – 9 pm, Fri – Sat 11 am – 10 pm, Sun 12 pm – 9 pm. $$. No reservations.