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Il Mercato: White Tablecloth Dining Without the Tablecloth

Il Mercato is a white-tablecloth restaurant without the white tablecloths. Or any tablecloths, for that matter. But don't let its lack of table coverings fool you: This cozy café-wine bar is dishing the kind of simple yet sophisticated food you can eat every day... at prices you can afford. Credit chef Emily Finne-Lynch, who executes the hell out of the menu, which kindly offers entrées in both full and half portions. Take the salt cod fritters — not mine, though; if you try, I'll break both your arms — twin discs of golden crispness on the outside and almost-molten goodness on the inside. They come with a piquillo pepper coulis whose sweet tang balances the saltiness of the preserved fish. You can't have my truffled Parmesan fries either, lightly kissed with truffle oil and fried to within the slightest crunch of perfection. Or the grilled hanger steak, at $12 for half a stupid-generous serving of juicy, flavorful meat in a pool of Gorgonzola-green peppercorn sauce that, honestly, could have used a bit more of both. Chase it with the 2007 Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona (a terrific value at $7), one of two dozen wines by the glass and 125 bottles. Tagliatelle with wild mushrooms and creamy goat cheese sauce could have been leaden and dull, but the delicacy of the house-made pasta and nutty bite of sherry lightened and brightened it just enough. Finne-Lynch makes her own gelati too, like a lush milk chocolate with the texture of fine silk. After all that, who needs a tablecloth?

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