The Mercer Kitchen
147 Mercer Street New York, NY 10012; 212-966-5454
Pizza Style: New American
Oven Type: Wood and sometimes grilled
The Skinny: Despite using high-quality ingredients and a wood-fired oven, the pizza here is seriously dated. The crust might have been considered gourmet in the 1990s, when MK opened, but these days it's an expensive anachronism
Price: $9 to $13 for personal-size pies
I have had a good run here at Slice. The last truly bad pizza I reviewed was at Fanelli's way back in January. It was inevitable that I would eventually be forced to give another negative review, but the fact that the scene of the crime—The Mercer Kitchen—is situated just across the street from Fanelli's indicates that perhaps Prince and Mercer is an intersection best avoided when it comes to pizza.
Actually, the ignoble tradition extends beyond just these two culprits, although the other offender in this area, Zoe, received the ultimate punishment. Now defunct, Zoe started slinging nouvelle-cuisine pizzas from its wood-fired oven when it opened in 1992. It seems unlikely that that this didn't have an influence on the The Mercer Kitchen's menu when it opened in 1998—the pies are of the same type.
In fact, I'm not sure they're so much pizza as flatbread. Or at least they represent an evolutionary chain of pizza that has been thankfully stunted, changing little since the mid 1990s and mercifully not permeating the mainstream in any significant way. The Neapolitan pizza craze that is gripping NYC these days has brought renewed attention to the importance of all of the components of a pie. While the ingredients on the Mercer Kitchen pizzas are almost always excellent, at least in terms of quality and freshness, the crust seems to be a mere afterthought.
Case in point, the mozzarella, basil, and tomato pie I recently tried in the subterranean lair that is The Mercer Kitchen's dining room. The toppings were just fine, if rather uninspired—milky cheese, a sweet, tangy sauce perfumed with basil. But the crust was in need of rehabilitation—it was soggy, floppy, and limp.
Despite some char on the outer rim the rest of the pie was rather underdone.
The dough itself also lacked chewiness. The most annoying thing about the pizza might just be the price, which, at $9 for a 7-inch pie, is highway robbery.
No better was a grilled pizza, which sounded enticing—who could pass up the tempting combination of sopressata, aged pecorino, ricotta, and roasted peppers?
Unfortunately, it was a bit of the old bait and switch. I expected a crisp crust with a smoky flavor and a salty, fatty contribution from the sopressata, the cheese and peppers providing back-up.
Instead I got a flaccid crust that was remarkable in that it was burned and undercooked all at once. The dominant flavor was not smoke or salt but ricotta and peppers. The sopressata reduced to an occasional participant.
I also sampled a special pie served on the lunch special menu, which came with taleggio cheese, pancetta, and delicate slivers of summer squash. The topping flavors were nicely integrated—the salty, smoky pancetta, mild creaminess from the cheese, and fresh-tasting squash—but again the crust was a major let-down.
The pizza sold at the Mercer Kitchen is an anachronism, it dates back to a time before the Neapolitan pizza craze gripped the city, before crust mattered as much as it does today. The toppings are all beyond reproach, but their use on the substandard dough leaves much to be desired.
If you make make it to the Mercer Kitchen, skip the pizza. And if you find yourself on the corner of Prince and Mercer in general, skip the pizza.