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Al Mercante (Milan)

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Address: Piazza dei Mercanti 17 / 20123 Milano / Italy ‎

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      05.08.2013 16:40
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      An Italian restaurant housed in a 13th century building

      Ristorante Al Mercante is a beautiful old building situated in Piazza de Mercanti, a medieval square that we stumbled upon while walking around the city of Milan in June of this year. We saw the square early in the morning and noticed waiters preparing the tables outside for lunch time visitors. I really liked the atmosphere and the exquisite stonework of the old buildings. I mentioned that I would like to eat in the restaurant and my husband suggested that we carried on with our city tour and returned the same evening to visit. As public transport is very efficient in Milan I agreed to do this, knowing that it wouldn't take too long to go back to the hotel after a day of sightseeing, freshen up and take the Metro 1 or 3 to Duomo and walk from there.

      When we arrived in the Piazza de Mercanti in the evening, I was undecided whether to sit outside in the beautiful courtyard filled with red geraniums or to go inside to eat. The way the outside tables had been decorated with orange cloths tied in bows at each corner of the table, plants in the aisle ways and two cream coloured canopies covering everything, was certainly very tempting but then I knew the building that housed the restaurant dated back from the 13th century. Wiki tells me that it was once called the House of Panigarola and a former office of the charters. I know the word Mercante means merchant but according to my guide book, this medieval square was once dominated by law courts and the area was part of the city centre in the Middle Ages. Panigarola was the name of a family of notaries from Gallarate, Lombardy who owned the building in 1741. It was a difficult decision to make but I knew I would kick myself if I left Milan without going inside this ancient building.

      A smartly dressed middle aged man, who I assume was either the manager or owner, greeted us as we walked through the door. He asked us if we had a reservation, we didn't have one, an oversight on our part as we could have booked a table in the morning. It was okay, it was still early and there were free tables on the ground and upper floor. We chose to go up to the top floor to sit next to a window so I could look across at the square. Both floors were a bit like large halls in a public building or school with low ceilings. I was very excited at the thought of eating my dinner in this old hall.

      The décor and furnishings gave a well-balanced look; the pale walls were a great background for many framed paintings that were what I call, 'serious art.' By this I mean they had been painted by real artists and not any old cheap canvas plonked on a wall. I didn't recognise any of the artists but I am not well up on medieval Italian art. The chairs had rattan backs and the tables were covered with really thick linen cloths that were immaculately tucked in at the corners. Individual serviettes, again linen and so thick, sat in between our knife and fork, glasses were medium sized and the other artefact on the table that caught my eye was a sort of bouquet made from raffia filled with fresh fruit like grapes, plums and berries. I really liked this creative touch; the grapes were nice and sweet too. I also loved the arched windows set into thick stone that opened out on to the piazza. Although the hall was large and square shaped I did think the tables were very close together and there wasn't a lot of space to stretch your legs or to manoeuvre a pram or wheelchair so the top floor would be out of bounds for parents with small children or people with mobility problems. Come to think of it, I didn't see any children upstairs or downstairs which seemed odd.

      A lady dressed in black was assigned to our table, she greeted us and handed us two menus that were very well presented with a sepia picture on the front showing the facade of the building. Both menus emphasised Italian and Lombard cuisine, olive oil that is supplied from Umbria, pasta, bread and cakes that are prepared daily in the kitchen. The menu of the day is updated daily and piqued my interest. This one reads in Italian only, the larger menu reads in English and Italian and I noticed two symbols; one like a dollar that means products marked with this may be frozen and this symbol (is) which means in season. There is also a grand wine list which I studied in great detail before ordering. White and red wines from Piedmont, Lombardy and Tuscany are featured and vary in prices starting from 16 Euros to 110 Euros for a 75cl bottle. We went with a Chianti Classico from Tuscany that cost 22 Euros and we didn't have a beer although I quite fancied a bottle of Peroni Nastro Azzuro (6 Euros - 33cl) but I had visions of the bill being sky high so showed some control.

      While the not so good humoured lady went off to fetch our wine we decided which menu to choose from. They were both interesting and varied. Starters, pasta and meat & fish dishes were cheaper on the Menu of the Day. I was very tempted to go with that one as I love Osso Bucco which was only 20 Euros served with risotto but I couldn't see any starters I fancied or desserts so in the end we both ordered from the main menu.

      In the meantime, the lady had been replaced by a friendly chap who looked like a young Bruce Willis with hair. He had lovely dark brown eyes with long eyelashes that twinkled when he smiled. He opened the wine and poured a small amount into each of our glasses. It smelt delicious; the aromas that I could pick out were blackcurrant, leather and a real earthy smell. The colour was a deep ruby red tinted with a dash of purple. The waiter took our order and then trotted off to the kitchen. I was keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn't keep coming over to top the wine glasses up as this drives my husband nuts!

      The wine was quite delicious and I knew I was drinking it too quickly so slowed down as I wanted to savour it with my food. First, came the starters, fried zucchini flowers for me and clams and mussels in tomato sauce for my husband.

      The zucchini flowers looked very pretty and appetising, three large flower heads fried in a light batter. They were piping hot and I very nearly burnt my bottom lip. Inside the filling was a blend of mozzarella cheese, chopped shallots and a mixture of herbs. I could taste basil, thyme and oregano and possibly a tiny amount of sage. These were very delicious and not greasy or soggy. When my husband's dish of clams and mussels arrived at the table, I thought it looked a large portion for a starter. He had 6 clams and 6 black mussels with the tomato sauce served on the top of the seafood garnished with fresh basil leaves. I suppose they aren't too filling. I asked him how the sauce was and he said it had a little too much basil in the sauce for his liking although the texture was smooth and the tomatoes were fresh and had been crushed. He could taste white wine and plenty of garlic and he also said that the sauce wasn't too sweet which it can be sometimes depending on the type of tomatoes used.

      My husband didn't have a Primi Piatti but said he would share some of my ravioli soup. This looked very colourful served in a large white bowl decorated with parmesan cheese and sprigs of flat leaf parsley. I did note that the ravioli was of the sturdier type and not thinly rolled like I usually use when making this soup. Other ingredients were onions, carrots and peas. The soup was clear and made with a chicken stock which was a wee bit salty. Inside the ravioli was filled with tasty ground chicken. I will have to knock some points off for the saltiness of the meal as it spoilt the overall taste. I had to buy a half litre bottle of mineral water to keep the thirst at bay.

      For mains we both ordered Carpaccio, a large plate of thinly sliced raw beef. This dish originally came from Venice, named after the painter Vittore Carpaccio and is usually served as a starter. Other types of meat like veal can make up the dish or tuna or salmon. The slices were extremely thin, covered the whole plate and garnished with a couple of rocket leaves. We also had parmesan and celery salad which was delicious made up of sliced celery hearts, grated parmesan and walnuts decorated with parsley. I really liked the zesty dressing; I could taste lemon juice, anchovy paste, olive oil, garlic and lots of onion. My husband was in his element sat at the table with a bottle of olive oil ready to pour over the beef slices and extra on top of the salad. 10/10 for the Carpaccio.

      Did we have any room in out tums for an Italian dessert? Of course we did. What did we order? We didn't choose Tiramisu or apple cake or chocolate cake. I ordered vanilla ice cream with Amaretto and my husband ordered crema cotta which is like a crème brulee. One of my earliest memories of Italy was when I was 16 sat on a bench in Venice eating an ice cream. I've never forgotten the taste, it was amazing. Unfortunately, this vanilla ice cream wasn't a patch on Venetian Ice Cream but the almond taste of the Amaretto was divine. As for the crema cotta, my husband loved the creamy, light caramel taste and very nearly ordered another.

      Good job, I only visit Milan once every now and again. If I travelled to this gorgeous city more often I am sure I would be bankrupt. The meal described above cost 98 Euros which is a bit pricey. At least I can say I have eaten in a 13th century medieval house which in Milan are hard to come by as most of the medieval buildings have been destroyed. It was a nice experience, I loved the building and the piazza, the food was good but I have tasted better, service was average and the wine was delicious. I would like to give the restaurant 3.5 but seeing that I am in a good mood today, I will award 4 stars.

      Other Info:

      Toilet and washing facilities are nicely presented and clean. There are ordinary and Turkish style toilets with heavy stable type doors that spring back and can attack you if you are not careful.

      If you have a car you can park for free after 7pm on the blue lines.

      Public Transport: Metro: 1, 3 to Duomo

      Opening Times: Monday - Saturday:
      12,00/14,30 and 19,00/22,30

      Closed for holidays:
      1st to 8th of January
      10th to 26th of August

      Address: Restaurant Al Mercante
      Piazza Mercanti, 17
      20123 - Milan
      Tel: +39 02 8052198

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