Francesco Buitoni is working in a sunlit room, prepping the pasta special for tonight's dinner. He works quickly, rolling a lump of chilled, wrinkled dough into long butter-colored sheets, running his hands along the surface, smooth and cool. It's ready. He squares each section off with a knife and feeds them through a cutter, catching the flour-dusted ribbons in his palms.
Tonight at Mercato, this tagliatelle will wear a Bolognese-style ragu, exquisitely composed with beef, veal and pork from the hills of this countryside, enriched with chicken livers and whole milk from a farm just up the road. Like all of Buitoni's cooking, it is rustic but not coarse, elegant but not showy. And it takes time. The ragu will bubble on the stove for four hours before Buitoni even begins to taste it. There is a moment, with a truly beautiful ragu, when it will become greater than the sum of its parts. This one will delight with its sunny, vegetal sweetness and surprise with its complex, meaty depth. It will become delicious. And it will sell out within a couple of hours.
At first glance, there's nothing unusual about an Italian chef arranging nests of tagliatelle on a sheet pan, no less one whose great, great, great, great grandparents were pasta-makers two hundred years ago. But a family relic on the wall tells its own story: a burlap bag printed with a company logo that bears his last name. In 1827, Giulia Buitoni built one of Italy's first commercial pasta factories, and over the years her descendants expanded the business again and again until it became the international industrial food giant that turned generations of American children into spaghetti-lovers.
This Buitoni, though, was born in New York City—his father ran the Buitoni factory in Hackensack, NJ—but spent half his time in Italy, immersed in another side of the family business. As a child he went along when his grandfather picked out the grain for pasta production in Puglia, and spent time at his grandmother's wheat and tobacco farm near Rome. But what he always liked best was helping around the kitchen and running dishes to and from the farm's communal oven. In fact, a version of his grandmother's rich lasagna appears on Mercato's menu in winter, the béchamel browned on its fine, crisped edges. "I always wanted to cook," he says, "but I didn't trust myself."
By the time the family sold the business to Nestlé in 1998, for over a billion dollars, Buitoni knew that office work was not for him. "In Italy, you have to do what your family does," he says, "but here, you do what you want." Despite family pressure, Buitoni came back to New York City and got himself a job at one of the finest Italian restaurants in the country, San Domenico. To learn more about the ins and outs of the wine business, he worked as a sommelier for Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali at the bustling Greenwich Village favorite Otto.
But it was the countryside that called to him, and when he saw an ad for a sous-chef at a small restaurant in the Hudson Valley, he answered it. With its slower pace and sunny kitchen, it reminded him of life on his grandmother's farm. And it clicked. Here, he realized, he could honor his family legacy on his own terms. Before long he and his wife were planning their dream restaurant.
Mercato occupies the first floor of a pretty wooden house with siding the color of a rain cloud. When the weather's nice enough to put extra tables on the porch, the place can hold about fifty, tops. Buitoni thinks the size is right. "Sometimes," he jokes, "I dream about an even smaller place."
Buitoni finishes the pasta prep as Mike Gonnella takes a seat at an unset table. Gonnella owns a bakery in the neighboring hamlet, and occasionally shares food orders with Buitoni. Like many locals, he has a penchant for dropping in to chat. The two talk for a few minutes, and then an order arrives: a flat of soft shell crabs under a bed of straw, a canvas bag of pebble-colored cockles and whole sole over crushed ice. Other orders Buitoni picks up himself, "I like to stay connected to my ingredients, to touch and feel for them." On his way to work today, Buitoni stopped at the butcher before gathering ramps in the pastures of Coach Farm's goat dairy, where he often buys cheese. The wild greens will be on the menu tonight, wilted over polenta with asparagus and a pudding-soft piece of sheep's milk cheese from Old Chatham, another nearby dairy.
Buitoni eyes the clock. He's eager to go to Bubby's, a seasonal burrito stand popular with his cooks and local students, for whom its opening is a declaration of spring. Although the trailer is parked on a dandelion-spotted slope only a mile away, it's already 5:30 and this is no time for a burrito.
Buitoni takes another regretful look at the clock and swaps his plaid shirt for chef's whites. Customers begin to arrive—locals who consider this their neighborhood spot, and a few weekenders up to take in the birdsong and greenery. He begins calling orders in the open kitchen and greeting familiar faces. The scent of food fills the candlelit dining room as the plates come out. There are olive oil-poached octopus tentacles, lightly charred, served on a warm salad of cannelini beans and broccoli rabe. Heaps of raw, chiffonaded kale tossed with lemon vinaigrette, toasted pine nuts and currants, and topped with a feather of pecorino. Generous bowls of linguine alle vongole that taste simply, perfectly of the sea.
Buitoni's approach to cooking is strongly intuitive. He prefers a broken vinaigrette to a sauce, a handful of ingredients to many. And his relationship with garlic could carry a Seinfeld episode. "Garlic! What's the deal with garlic? Italian food is not about garlic." He leaves it at that, but if his cooking is any indication, Italian food is about simplicity and confidence. Every dish from Mercato's kitchen appears effortless. Take the creamy chicken livers on country bread. Buitoni cooks them so they're blushing in the middle, filled with musty juice, then glazes them with balsamic vinegar and serves them just as they are: magnificently liver-shaped, each one different from the next, with a sprinkling of butter-fried sage leaves. It's humble food, but in Francesco Buitoni's hands it's like a passed appetizer at a luxurious Roman banquet.
As it gets later Mercato begins to glow on the dark street. The screen door swings as people come in and wave to the kitchen. One waitress stops to kiss a baby in his mother's arms. Buitoni's wife Michele Platt shows up with their three young sons, and the older two skip through the dining room as if it’s their home. Everyone is talking, sharing food with people at adjoining tables, and the room has the feeling of the charmed, easygoing Italian lifestyle that the Buitoni brand advertises, but that can't be manufactured. Here at Mercato, it's the real deal.
Mercato Osteria & Enoteca
61 East Market Street
Red Hook, NY 12572