The model for expanding restaurants keeps evolving. While the first restaurant chains were comprised of replicas of an original, popular restaurant, the latest trend in culinary empire-building is to have several related establishments at different points on the spectrum between casual and fine dining.
A local case in point is Sienna Mercato, a new venture of the restaurant group that brought the rustic Italian restaurant Sienna Sulla Piazza to Market Square, led by executive chef Matthew Porco. Rather than spend years building an Italian dining empire across the city, Sienna Mercato aims to synchronize and centralize, with three distinct establishments occupying a floor each of one building in the Cultural District.
But just as Rome was not built in a day, Sienna Mercato is opening in stages. The "Mezzo" level will soon house a wood-fire pizza oven, charcuterie and wine bar, and the rooftop will have a beer garden. The first floor has opened as "Emporio: A Meatball Joint."
In a revisionist gourmet-food culture that has recently elevated mac-and-cheese and the hamburger, a celebration of the lowly meatball was perhaps inevitable. Yet this is exactly what it is; Emporio doesn't try to tart up meatballs with fancified ingredients or preparations as much as lavish love and attention on its humble subject. Not that there is no inventiveness. Cleverly, in addition to meatballs, there are a number of other spherical items, from the traditional arancini (cheesy rice balls) to round ricotta donuts.
Special mention goes to buffalo-chicken balls, served with long, curling "noodles" of celery and a chunky bleu cheese sauce that created an ersatz bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. And the pleasure didn't stop with the presentation: The balls were moist with a suitably crisp exterior, the buffalo sauce assertively spicy, and the celery arguably better in this format than the traditional sticks, with plenty of crunch but less work for your teeth and more surface for bleu cheese and buffalo sauce, deliciously, to meld.
Tater tots have become a minor trend, and Emporio employed them as part of a major trend, poutine, in this case made with chicken gravy. The crunchy exterior of the tots held up very well to the sloppy poutine and protected the tender interior.
The meatball section at the heart of the menu is arranged in a sort of build-your-own fashion. There is a choice of classic beef, pork, chicken or vegetarian balls, plus one daily special; an array of sauces; and a selection of preparations: sliders, panini, hoagie, or sauced on a plate. Additionally, there are sides — mostly starches — to round out your meal. To support this versatility, the balls themselves are a mid-size three ounces, a couple inches in diameter.
Unfortunately, our meatball experience went from bland to worse. A classic beef ball in "creamy Parmesan" sauce tasted basically like ground beef in bechamel, with nothing to distinguish the meatball and none of the intense, nutty flavor of Parmesan cheese. Tomato risotto was at least an effective side, the creamy, tender-firm Arborio rice brightened with fresh-tasting tomato sauce, not chunks.
The spicy pork wasn't particularly fiery, but at least it offered the flavor that was missing from the beef meatball. A toasty ciabatta roll and well-melted provolone made for a nice sandwich. But disappointment struck again with a Bolognese sauce redolent of sugar and spices we associate more strongly with curry. Bolognese is famous for being meaty, just held together with a scant bit of tomato, and faintly sweet with minced onion and carrot. But Emporio's was overwhelmingly sweet, with hints of cumin and cinnamon and the odd hunk of carrot.
Then there was the Sunday gravy, perplexingly offered as a vegetarian tomato sauce. We were perplexed because Sunday gravy is defined, like most gravies, by its origin in meat. Nomenclature aside, this simple tomato sauce was tart, particularly in comparison with the Bolognese; tossed with spaghetti and ball of finely ground chicken, it was adequate.
The special meatball was pepperoni, paired with a tomato sauce simmered with the meatball's cooking oil. The kitchen had the good sense to grind the pepperoni finely so that its flavor was subtle and pervasive, and the sauce, though oily, was a good flavor match.
Things finished satisfyingly with those rich ricotta donuts, delivered hot and dusted with powdered sugar. This and our appetizers were satisfying bookends to our middling meatball meal.