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Passionate teacher-turned-chef pioneers Italian fast-casual eatery in Brantford

Community ProfilePassionate teacher-turned-chef pioneers Italian fast-casual eatery in Brantford

Tom Mercante, who is the executive chef and founder of Mercasa Little Italy Eatery & Catering, has been passionate about food ever since he was a kid.  

“I grew up cooking alongside my mom [and] my Nona…and as a teenager, I had jobs…work[ing] at Maria’s Pizza [and a] a couple of other family restaurants,” Mercante said. “When my mom opened up a restaurant here in Brantford I would work there after school and on the weekends. So, I have always been around the kitchen [and have] always been passionate about cooking; it’s in [my] blood.”

Along with his mother’s restaurant, Mercante has family in Italy who own several thriving hotels, restaurants, and pizzerias; he also has family in the Hamilton area who own restaurants and a banquet center.   

Mercante’s love of food then spilled over into his teaching career.

“I was a teacher for 22 years in Brantford. I taught elementary school [and] high school. And then I ran the culinary arts department at St. John’s College for 12 years. At that time, I was also teaching some college courses,” said Mercante.

One of the key offerings at Mercasa is the Roman pizza. Mercante is pictured here taking a fresh pizza out of the oven which takes three days for the dough to leaven. Photo courtesy Mercasa Little Italy Eatery & Catering.

However, after two decades of teaching Mercante decided to make his mark on the culinary landscape in Brantford.  

[My family and I are] foodies [and] we like to go out for dinner a lot, but found that there was no authentic Roman pizza in Brantford,” noted Mercante.

After many trips to Italy, Mercante became transfixed with a unique and popular food service experience.

“In Italy, there are these service centers, express stops…where you stop off the highway. They’re called Auto Grille. It’s quick service [and] fast casual. I have loved that since I was a kid. We would stop in [and] would get [these] homemade sandwiches [while] there would be somebody making fresh pasta,” explained Mercante. “You could get what you wanted…and then go sit down to eat…there was no table service! I have always loved that model.”

Mercante was heavily involved in designing his restaurant as well as developing an authentic Italian food experience. He utilized his many travels to Italy in crafting a menu and taking various courses to learn recipes and techniques from acclaimed chefs and bakers. Photo courtesy Mercasa Little Italy Eatery & Catering.

This concept appealed to Mercante so much that he decided to translate that into a business opportunity in the local area.

“I never wanted to own a normal restaurant, but I thought of bringing this kind of fast-casual concept to Canada and doing it right here in my hometown of Brantford. Everyone was pushing me to go to Hamilton or Toronto,” Mercante said. “I would have been busier, and perhaps more successful in those cities…but my roots are in Brantford. I was born and raised here. I love everything about it…we live in an amazing community. So, I wanted to do it here.”

Although this model was established in Italy, it took some time for people to adjust to it.  

“It’s taken a while for our clients in Brantford to understand the concept…because it’s so unique. When they come in for the first time…customers look around and ask, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’” Mercante continued. “You don’t sit down at a table [and wait]…you walk right up [and] everything is right there behind glass…The Roman pizzas are pulled out of the oven right in front of your eyes. You’re smelling everything [and] you’re seeing everything while it’s being made.”

Mercante is pictured here with staff preparing meals for an event. Catering is a key component of Mercante’s business success. Photo courtesy Cloud 9 event services.

Mercante was deeply involved in designing and planning the physical location as well as creating an authentic Italian menu; he even traveled to Italy for inspiration and ended up finding a 200-year-old Roman Pizza recipe.

“Everyone has said they love walking in here [because] it has a different feel; it’s very open and welcoming. I designed every square inch of this place…[from] what’s going on the walls to the lighting…we designed it ourselves. We even curated the layout of the ovens [and] the stone used when we built it was imported from Italy,” Mercante said.

Mercante, who would open this innovative eatery in 2018, capturing several awards for its food service along the way, had to make a difficult decision for his business to succeed.

“I resigned from teaching [and] walked away from a really good career which I enjoyed. I get asked all the time if I miss teaching…and yes, I do miss it. I loved working with the students…especially [when I was] sharing my culinary passion with them,” he said. “The transition wasn’t easy. But I wanted a new challenge. I didn’t want to live with any regrets. [I don’t want to] look back saying, ‘I should have tried that’.”

Mercante’s open ‘fast casual’ concept has resonated with many local guests as well as many who have traveled out of town to try this unique dining experience. Photo courtesy Mercasa Little Italy Eatery & Catering.

However, before he launched Mercasa, Mercante did catering on the side for several years, which has since become an integral component, as well as one of his favorite aspects, of his current business.

“I started doing it a bit during the summers, to give students experiences with catering when I was a teacher [and then] I noticed that there was a demand for it. The restaurant is our platform for catering,” Mercante explained. “We do small parties here in our dining room for around 40 [to] 60 people [and we do] home catering, weddings, corporate events, [and] outdoor barbecues. We have also [catered] a Christmas party for 900 guests.”

Mercase offers a menu rich with authentic Italian foods ranging from 8 Layer Abruzzese Lasagna to Roman Pizza. Photo courtesy Mercasa Little Italy Eatery & Catering.

Currently, Mercante is making plans to roll out a new food truck, to promote Mercasa, along with testing a Roman pizza.

“Roman pizza is very unique. It’s a 72-hour natural fermentation for the dough, which means there’s almost no yeast in the dough; it’s different from any other pizza in the world, as it’s naturally leavened. We have to use high-quality ingredients imported from Italy.” he said. “We decided to try a frozen, fully cooked Roman Pizza option [and] we’ve tested it for the last six months [going through] trial and error [and] with a couple of different sizes.”

However, at the end of the day, Mercante’s focus is providing his customers with a truly authentic Italian culinary experience.  

“The biggest thrill in this world for me is seeing that somebody is super happy [and] enjoying something that we prepared. When someone comes in and tells me ‘That’s the best pizza I’ve ever had.’ That’s rewarding, especially when they have had pizza in Italy!” said Mercante.

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