Taste: Eating Good in The Gayborhood

On the way to dinner at Mercato, I pass the spot on 15th Street where the red neon lobster of Bookbinder’s Seafood House glows no more, replaced by the red neon apple of Applebee’s. I cringe every time a faceless, place-less chain restaurant scores another storefront in Center City, and I’d be sobbing into my Ortlieb’s right now if not for a recent bumper crop of snug little homegrown joints like Mercato. Noisy, cramped and cash-only, this imperfect yet irresistible ­Italian/New American BYOB owned by George Anni and chef Evan Turney feels like a natural extension of its diverse east-of-Broad neighborhood. Peek through the wide front window any night, and you might see eight gay men celebrating a birthday, or two medical students on a date, or an infant snoozing through the din as his parents nurse the last of their wine. Though two small chandeliers dangle from the stamped-tin ceiling, Mercato is stylish rather than fancy, and its oversize portions assure that no one goes home hungry.

Working in a tiny open kitchen, Turney and sous-chef Mackenzie Hilton turn out perfect seared sea scallops with truffle-oil-scented English pea risotto, as well as orecchiette pasta with old-fashioned meatballs, mild Italian sausage, and red gravy that simmers for half a day with a heap of roasted pork bones. I could make a meal of the bountiful antipasto that adds baby ­artichokes, roasted portabellao mushrooms, chickpea-carrot salad and pan-crisped polenta to the expected assortment of cured meats and cheeses. But watch out: A few dishes are too rich, such as the lobster and shrimp pasta pyramids finished with brown butter. And on very busy nights, items that require a watchful eye, such as easy-to-burn puff pastry, can suffer. Mascarpone cheesecake, a delightful cookie plate for two, and gelati from similarly homegrown Capogiro are the stars of the dessert menu.

Mercato, 1216 Spruce Street, 215-985-2962; mercatobyob.com. Average cost of dinner per person (with tax and tip): $49.