You may have arrived to dinner at Pizzeria Mercato thinking the pizza would be the most exciting part of your meal, but you'd be wrong. In the hands of Gabe Barker, a bowl of collard greens feels like a celebration and a homecoming.
Pizza, no matter where you get it, is both a festive food and an everyday staple. We eat it after soccer games and for birthdays, but we also order it in while standing in front of an empty refrigerator on a Tuesday night. For many North Carolinians, collards play a similar role. We make them daily without much thought, and also serve them as holiday foods—for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and for good luck on New Year's Day.
This connection occurs to me as I feast on the collards at Pizzeria Mercato, which are delivered before my pie arrives. The pies are wonderful, but what keeps me coming back to Mercato is the constant stream of surprises that flows from the vegetable section of the menu. The collard greens have stuck with me since I ate them back in January, just after the restaurant's grand opening. The dish is one of a few that Barker was eager to bring back from that opening-day menu.
At each step of cooking, Barker stays true to his Southern roots while incorporating a pronounced Italian influence. Just like the great Southern home cooks I've known, Barker blanches the greens and cooks them in pork fat. But, breaking from tradition, his fat comes from guanciale, a type of bacon made from hog jowls that's common in Italian cooking. Once cooked, he folds in fatty, chewy pieces of cooked guanciale and sprinkles delicately crunchy, sour, peppery slices of Calabrian chili on top.
The dish is emblematic of what Barker intended the restaurant to be: a celebration of local produce, adapted with Italian flair. The collards come from Brinkley Farms in Creedmoor, better product than what Barker says was available in San Francisco. (Barker worked the line at California's famed Pizzeria Delfina.) The dish is both familiar and exciting—a little like coming home and a little like taking a trip to Italy.
Nostalgia is present in every bite of these collards, yet Barker doesn't lean too hard on it. (My father, a Californian who has never fully come around to Southern food, ate these collards with a spoon, fighting me for the last bite.) Just as his parents did at Magnolia Grill, the young chef reminds us that Southern food is a cuisine to be proud of. Going head to head with fancier cuisines, it shows us how to feast on our roots anew.
The dish is rich, acidic, satisfying, and familiar without being boring. The collards are glossy dark green ribbons, studded with the chewiness of the pork and the brightness of the chili. My tempo picked up as I ate, as if I were gobbling up a pint of ice cream, eagerly savoring the next spoonful.
Even if you lack any interest in waxing nostalgic about the evolution of Southern food or intellectualizing the significance of a bowl of vegetables, this dish is still a revelation. And if you do want to wax nostalgic, these collards are still better than your mother's collards, because they aren't trying to be your mother's collards. They're just trying to make you think of them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Easy Being Green."