It took me two full meals at Mercante to actually write this post. I know, I know… it might sound like an excuse, but the first time I went there, interviewed Italian co-founder and foodie Omar Maseroli and tried their dinner menu, and the second time, last Sunday, I tasted their ‘gnocco fritto’ (fried bread dough), rejoiced while it was in my mouth and delivered a much deserved Chiara’s Pick.
连着去了两次商贾，我才把本篇采访完成…哈哈，我知道这听起来像是为自己满足口腹之欲找的借口。但是，我终于为自己心中的疑问找到了最佳答案：为什么一家意大利餐馆会起名叫商贾？选择隐藏在老北京的胡同里，是酒香不怕巷子深，还是有什么特别的原因？商贾的老板，意大利男人 Omar Maseroli娓娓道来。
Mercante, tucked in the heart of Beijing, a few steps away from Nanluoguxiang, is your typical Italian trattoria, where you can experience solid and down-to-earth cuisine the way your grandmother would prepare it for you, with love and focus on the quality of the ingredients.
That is, of course, if you live in Emilia Romagna and if your grandmother is a countryside women with a weakness for home-made bread.
But given we are in Beijing, I was curious to understand why Omar came all the way here to share this culinary experience with Beijiners. We sat down, drank some coffee (the Italian way) together with his boss (and girlfriend!) Yuan Yuan and talked about past, present and future of Mercante, which opened its doors to the public in January, 2012.
Here is his story.
Has a place like Mercante always been in your plans?[Laughing] No. But I have always loved to spend some quality time around a dining table; it could be with friends, family, my girlfriend. When I turned 18 I started driving my car around my region, Emilia Romagna, to explore new restaurants and new flavours – this has always been my passion. Moreover, I’ve always been curious about the process that magically takes place in the kitchen and transforms raw ingredients into a dish right on my table. I guess the most fascinating wizards were my grandmothers – I still look at them as a big source of inspiration!
How did you end up in Beijing and what about this city inspired you to open a restaurant?
I came to Beijing eight years ago, and back then my job was about figures and excel sheets. Let’s say that being away from home pushed me to actually spend more time in the kitchen to cook the things I wanted to eat – this is how I became more and more interested in cooking and sourcing high-quality products. Definitely Beijing was a rich soil for my passion to grow and evolve into something more solid: there is an ancient and sophisticated food culture here ad Yuan Yuan helped me discover it day after day, and, if it was not enough, this city is a microcosm where it is easy to find food from all over the world. Japanese, Korean, French, German… You got them all – and this is a continuous source of inspiration and exploration for me. I just felt it was right to be part of this dynamic reality.
Why the decision to settle Mercante down in the hutongs, rather than in more expat-friendly areas?
Mercante offers Italian food in the hutongs, a very special setting I’ve always been attracted to. It’s lively, with busy locals walking up and down the alley from early in the morning to late at night to go grocery shopping at the nearby market. There is a natural sparkle in the old Beijing, a rush of light, colours,flavours. It has always felt very natural for us to look for a location for Mercante here. My girlfriend Yuan Yuan (partner in this project and, as Omar says with a conspiratorial smile, his boss) is a true Beijiner, and feels comfortable here – also our house is just around the corner. We feel we belong here.
What is your personal role in Mercante?
I take care of the menu and I spent all the time in the kitchen during the first one year and a half after Mercante opened its doors. There was lots of work to do, to train the kitchen team and make sure the quality was up to standards. Around 6 months ago I stepped out from the kitchen and started spending more time in the dining hall, as a maitre – this way I’m more in touch with our guests. They are two completely different experiences and you need to both of them to understand how a restaurant works. From the very beginning, Yuan Yuan and I have decided to have a very hands-on approach and to spend most of the time in the restaurant, investing energy and resources into the training of the staff.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?
The biggest challenge is always to find more people to join our team – they have to be aware of our culture and of what we are trying to build. It doesn’t really matter that they have precious experience as waiters, we look more at their attitude and smiles. Yuan Yuan has a sixth sense for this: she just understands people when she talks to them. Her skill has been very useful, and most of the people in our team have been with us for a very long time. Now we are trying to give them more and more freedom, we want them to be more independent. Of course, we are always around if they need us as a back up.
What about the future plans for Mercante?
I would love to see Mercante up and running, working like clockwork. I don’t want it to suffer from ‘generation turnover’ if Yuan Yuan and I are not here anymore. Sadly, this is exactly what happened to most Italian trattoria, where, once the mother is too old or tired to go to the kitchen everyday, the sons just buy frozen bread instead of baking it daily. This is a disaster, the tradition is lost because the mother has not been able to share her knowledge, passion and technique with the next generation. At Mercante, once we’ll be done with the training-and-sharing process, we will think about opening a second Mercante, in some other historical area of Beijing. But at the moment we are far from there, so we just keep going to make this place better and better.
At Mercante the focus in on the basic ingredients, with cold cuts coming all the way from Italy, bread baked every day and pasta fresca rolled and stuffed with the best fillings – my favourite is definitely with radicchio, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese. Yummy!
商贾的原则是专注于原汁原味的食物原料，用最传统的意大利烹饪手法制作食物。我最爱的是莴苣核桃 戈尔根朱勒干酪做馅的pasta fresca！
I’m so proud of being Italian when it comes to food (and fashion and style, but this is another story!). Omar and Yuan Yuan are great ambassadors of our food culture, and I personally love the combination of Italian cuisine and Chinese traditional setting and drive. Because of course #italiansdoitbetter, but I find #theydoitbestwhentheyhaveachinesegirlfriendandpartner!
Conferire il Chiara’s Pick a Omar Maseroli e Yuan Yuan e’ stato per me un vero piacere: Mercante e’ una trattoria emiliana che non sarebbe fuori posto nella campagna parmense. Amore per le materie prime, attenzione per i dettagli e pane fatto in casa tutti i giorni. E anche la scelta della location e’ una piacevole sorpresa: Mercante non si trova nello sfavillante distretto degli affari, ma nel cuore della citta’ vecchia. Fare una passeggiata negli hutong e assaporare un po’ della vecchia Pechino prima di sedersi davanti allo ‘gnocco fritto’ e’ parte dell’esperienza. Provare per credere.
For the chat with Omar Maseroli and Yuan Yuan at Mercante in Beijing I was delighted to wear:
Pink blazer 粉色上衣: Max & Co.
Foulard 丝巾: Hermes
Brooch 胸针: Max Mara
Pearl necklace 珍珠项链: vintage
Bracelet 手镯: vintage
Diamond earrings 钻石耳饰: vintage
For the delivery of the Chiara’s Pick to Omar at Mercante I was delighted to wear:
Black silk dress 黑色长裙: COS
Silver earrings 银耳饰: Georg Jensen
Silver ring 银戒指: Furla
Sandals 凉鞋: Zara
Toe nail colour 美甲: OPI Coca-Cola Red
All the pictures at Mercante were taken with my white Sony NEX-5T.
Chinese translation by Jasmine Wang.