Located in a leafy and relatively quiet spot at the corner of Merchants Road and Wyand Crescent in the burgeoning North Winton Village neighborhood, Merchants Wood Fired Pizza and Bistro has the potential to establish itself as an anchor in the primarily residential area. The location, however, houses the ghosts of three previous restaurants that occupied the space since 2010. Merchants opened in November and hopes to buck the turnover trend.
To do so, the building was renovated to good effect: inside, diners will find dark wood tables, a hardwood floor, a small well-appointed bar, soft lighting, and with a unique touch, a large window through which you can observe the kitchen. There are seven tables outside on a comfortable, peaceful patio with vine-covered slatted wood overhead. My friend and I dined on the patio one recent sultry evening.
My friend started with the romaine wedge, a favorable breakaway — in terms of flavor and nutrition — from the more common iceberg wedge. A crisp, dark green quarter of a whole Romaine head was complemented with hefty chunks of smoked bacon, red ripe tomato, exceedingly thin slices of red onion, and a house-made blue cheese dressing with Gorgonzola crumbles. It showcased what a wedge salad really could be.
The Caesar salad on a subsequent visit was similarly bucking tradition, but wasn't as successful. Merchants forgoes croutons and freshly grated Parmesan on its Caesar — which we missed — and adds shredded red cabbage, which we thought added a pleasant, crunchy touch. The dressing, however, was not well balanced, and a bit heavy on the anchovy flavor — this from someone who often bemoans the lack of that umami on some Caesar salads.
Another starter that worked well was the wood-oven chicken wings, offered in a medium Buffalo-style sauce, BBQ, or Sriracha honey. I opted for the latter version, which were sweet-hot as expected, and had surprisingly crispy skin, a finish usually only attained through deep-frying. I verified with our server — who was highly knowledgeable — that these wings never saw the depths of a fryer, only the intense heat of the wood oven.
On our first visit, my friend chose the potato pizza, while I went more traditional with the Merchants, which uses red sauce, sausage, cup-and-char pepperoni, bell peppers, grilled onions, and both Fontinella and Mozzarella cheeses. Considering that the wood oven is a focal point for the restaurant, I was hoping for a slightly smokier and more prominently charred crust. Even so, the slices had just about the right degree of floppiness, were thin and slightly chewy, though not crisp, while sturdy enough to uphold the toppings. In all, there was a good balance that demonstrated an understanding that too many toppings belabor a well-made pizza.
My friend's potato pizza was kind of like au gratin potatoes on crust — not really pizza in my mind, but she enjoyed it. It's topped with a broccolini pesto base, thinly sliced russet potatoes, scallions, bacon, cheddar, jack, and mozzarella cheeses, and drizzled with chive crème fraîche. Although not mentioned on the menu, our server told us that it was also drizzled with truffle oil.
On my second visit, we ordered the white pizza, which is topped with fresh garlic oil, red pepper flakes, caramelized onions, grated Parmesan, Mozzarella and Provolone cheeses and basil. The crust was baked similarly to those on my first visit, but this pizza, for which we had high expectations, was diminished by an overly pungent abundance of garlic and excessive saltiness, which overshadowed what could've been a delectable combination of flavors.
That saltiness, unfortunately, became somewhat thematic on this evening. The brisket burger, which was cooked to a textbook medium-rare (topped with arugula, caramelized onions, bacon, and Gruyere) and served on a light but robust home-baked brioche bun, possessed an earthy flavor, but the burger was also overshadowed by salt.
Although not a traditional interpretation of fried chicken (which is so difficult to find around these parts), I was excited to try Merchants' buttermilk chicken-fried chicken, served on a cheddar chive waffle. While the boneless thigh and breast were enveloped in a crispy crackling crust, I found it to be too heavily battered and too salty, overwhelming any herbaceousness in the batter, as well as the flavor of the chicken itself. The sage gravy, however, was silky and flavorful, compensating for a less than illustrious waffle.
Merchants has owner Donna DiMarzo's years of experience in the wood-fired pizza business working for it, and for that alone, I'd expect it to establish itself as a pizza destination. I'm also fond of the coziness of the location, which should benefit from North Winton Village's ascension. With some fine tuning (and a lighter hand with the salt shaker), it should carve out a niche for itself among Rochester neighborhood restaurants.