Review: Sienna Mercato
Matthew Porco, one of our Chefs of the Year, designs the menus at Sienna Mercato's downtown establishments.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
Sienna Mercato, a relatively new Cultural District spot, comprises three restaurants in one, “each with its own identity and feeling,” says Executive Chef/Co-owner Matthew Porco. Porco again partners with co-owners Tom and Susan Certo from successful sister restaurant Sienna Sulla Piazza and Michael McCoy, who also serves as front-of-the-house manager.
Each level has a different name, look and food. But the interiors, designed by the owners, are unified via access to fresh air and a respect for the building’s original features, such as sturdy wooden joists and exposed red-brick walls. The culinary starting point for all eateries is Italian cuisine, but each floor has a different emphasis.
On the first floor, the loud Emporio: A Meatball Joint focuses on meatballs and poutine. The second-floor spot, Mezzo: Wine & Charcuterie, wasn’t open at press time; it will feature a wine bar, a wood-fired pizza oven and a pick-and-choose menu of house-cured meats, cheeses, salads, pizzas and antipasti. Up on the third level, Il Tetto: Rooftop Beer Garden does draft beer and upscale bar food.
Sienna Mercato does not take reservations but instead uses the NoWait smartphone app. The hostesses on each level communicate with each other and can send a text message when your table is ready on any floor.
Emporio, as you might’ve guessed, is all about meatballs, producing more than 25,000 hand-rolled balls each month. The four permanent choices (about 3 inches round) are classic beef, spicy pork, vegetarian and turkey; daily specials have included Philly cheese steak and pepperoni pizza meatballs. Choose from the housemade sauces and gravies — there are nine total — for your meatball. Then pick one of four serving options: meatball sliders, one ball on a toasted bun with any sauce ($3.50); meatball panini, two smashed balls with sauce and your choice of cheese ($7.50); meatball grinder, three balls baked with any sauce and your choice of cheese ($9.50); and “saucy” balls, four balls with any sauce ($11). For that last option, diners can add a side, such as tomato risotto, for an extra $4. Noticeably absent is a meatball sampler; diners must order all four meatball types separately if they want to try each.
Everything is made in-house, yet meatballs and sauces vary greatly in their success. My top combination is the creamy vegetarian ball made of mushroom, white bean, cauliflower and Parmesan with the spinach-almond pesto. The spicy pork meatball is tender and hot-rodded with chili peppers; it is nicely accented with any of the sauces, but I enjoy mushroom gravy on mine. Least to my liking is the classic beef ball, which I found to be bland and a bit tough — the risk of an all-beef meatball.
The housemade fries ($6) are best with herbs, Parmesan and malt-vinegar aïoli. The poutine ($7) contains the same fries but drowns them in thick gravy — a bit over the top.
Desserts are stellar: The housemade ricotta doughnuts ($5) are light and airy and dusted with powdered sugar, while the housemade brownie ($5) has a luxurious texture and dark chocolate panache; it’s billed on the menu as a “chocolate brownie sundae,” coming with a scoop of Turkey Hill ice cream, whipped cream and chopped pecans.
The chalkboard menu at Mezzo will list treats to mix and match — antipasti, wood-fired pizza, salad, house-cured meats and cheeses. There will be a “from-the-farm” section highlighting local, seasonal farm products. A nice touch is the family-style table for eight to 12 diners, which will have two nightly seatings; this is the only table at Sienna Mercato that can be reserved. The second floor will have a farmhouse feel, with original 20-foot wood ceilings and old laundry sinks in the bathrooms.
The third-floor beer garden is a terrific space with elevated bar food and more than 30 draft beers, plus wines and craft cocktails. Here you’ll find a remarkable concentration of young professionals.
The smoked whole chicken wings ($12) are made with a dry rub rather than a wet sauce. The French fried potatoes ($14) are thick-cut steak fries cooked with garlic and rosemary and topped with duck confit, duck-fat gravy and an egg, over easy. The gulf shrimp ($14) is served with cannellini beans, escarole and roasted plum tomatoes.
Il Tetto is reminiscent of a historical train station, featuring an arched ceiling constructed of glass panels that retract to create an open-air space. This level’s design is more industrial, with a concrete floor, red metal chairs, rivets on the edges of the table and the letters “SM” cut into various design elements.
Be sure to check out all the menus at Sienna Mercato and visit each level. Each floor has its own vibe, so there is something here for everyone.
Matthew Porco, Executive Chef/Co-owner | Sienna Mercato
How did you develop this concept?
We all love al fresco dining. We had tried to develop rooftop dining at Sienna [Sulla Piazza], but the space was too small and there was poor roof access. So we started looking at other spaces that would be suitable for al fresco dining. We were really excited when we discovered the Trombino Piano Gallery building. The building has three beautiful 4,000-square-foot spaces, with high ceilings and big service elevators that had been for pianos. We were stunned by the beautiful view from the roof.
How are you providing al fresco dining on each of the floors?
The rooftop is the most spectacular. There are motors attached to each side of the roof, and when we open it, [the roof retracts fully]. When the roof is open, 80 percent of the tables are under open sky. We constantly monitor the Doppler radar so that we can open and close the roof at the right times.
What about the other two floors?
In good weather, the front of the first floor opens onto the street. The second floor will have big windows that will open entirely onto Penn Avenue so it will feel like eating on a balcony.
What is special about the food?
Our first Sienna [Sulla Piazza] sells a ton of traditional meatballs, made with a blend of pork, beef and veal. That’s how we decided to make meatballs the centerpiece of the first level [here]. The second floor is more unstructured and shareable, where folks can order a bunch of things and share.
How do you feel about your business getting so big?
The best part of our [business] getting bigger is all the people I get to work with; I have opportunities to work with so many awesome people. For example, the first restaurant [Sienna Sulla Piazza] is doing great with Jason Watts as the chef de cuisine there. Each level of the new restaurants also has its own chef de cuisine.
How has business been so far?
It’s been kind of insane. We have reached our occupancy limit on the third floor every weekend. We have to now count people and let people in as other people exit. But the cool thing is that you can always hang out in any of the three floors while you wait to go to another.
942 Penn Ave., downtown; 412/281-2810, siennapgh.com/mercato