- Words by Toby Tannas Photography by Lia Crowe
If a table could talk, oh, the stories it would tell. Il Mercato Social Kitchen in West Kelowna has built its dining room around a giant, family-style table and its business around the theory that the best times in life involve family, friends, food and wine.
Proprietor Trevor Jones draws on decades of experience in the hospitality industry to create this special mix of ingredients that brings people to the Il Mercato Social Kitchen table.
“The heart of this business is getting people around the table, talking over good food and wine. You can solve a lot of problems. We try to build a lot of warmth into the business.”
When you come through the door at Il Mercato, you’re treated like family and that mentality starts in the kitchen. Trevor has assembled a skilled culinary team led by Chef Tristan Reia.
“You can tell when food has been prepared by someone who loves food,” explains Trevor. “Tristan takes such care in what he creates and really values feedback. It’s really a special, wonderful thing.”
Drawing on extensive training and travel abroad, Tristan has made Italian cuisine his specialty. Born into a French/Italian family, it was Tristan’s grandmothers who instilled in him the passion for cooking.
“I have a French grandmother and an Italian grandmother. They were definitely my inspiration for all of this,” Tristan says. “Cooking and food were always part of my upbringing. We would have huge family gatherings, the stereotypical stuff you see in the movies. All of our gatherings were centred around food.”
So, it wasn’t a stretch when Tristan was accepted into a prestigious Montreal culinary school and then promptly left for Italy to hone his craft further. He attended ALMA International School of Italian Cuisine, located in the Ducal Palace in Colorno. The institute was created by renowned Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, known as the founder of new Italian cuisine.
“That time in Italy was huge for me. I got to learn a lot about authentic Italian cuisine from the source. It really piqued my interest, and I knew it was what I wanted to pursue.”
Tristan brought his skills back home, but the born-and-bred Ontarian felt the draw of Western Canada. He further perfected his culinary skills at the beautiful and rustic Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff. That’s also where he met his future wife.
“Then the travel bug really got us. We went to France and worked together for six months.”
When he returned to Canada, Tristan further nourished his resume by working at Cucci in Oakville, Ontario and in wine country in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Tristan says he gained so much knowledge during those years that when the call came from Il Mercato, he was ready to bring his signature approach to the Okanagan. Alongside a core team of three, Tristan creates dishes based on his simple, authentic cooking style.
“The food we put out is very simple. We let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Case in point: the Osso Bucco, an Il Mercato favourite. The braised veal shank takes centre stage with backup from a creamy mushroom risotto and seasonal vegetables.
High-quality cheeses and meats are imported from Italy for the signature antipasto board. Olive oil, tomatoes and other authentic Italian necessities are also brought in from Italia, but Tristan also loves local. He’s forged relationships with prime Okanagan vendors to supply quality ingredients that make his dishes shine. Local goodness also influences his feature menus.
“I do a monthly set course menu. It’s three to four courses and I can really express myself through that and really focus on local.”
From the pasta to the focaccia, everything that makes it to the plate here is crafted in the Il Mercato kitchen.
When it comes to the wine list, it’s not what you’d expect at an authentic Italian eatery. There isn’t an Italian wine to be found on the remarkably beautiful wall of wine.
“We feature only BC wines,” explains Trevor. “This business is what the customer wants it to be, and the customer wants premium BC wines. We want to support community. We do feature Italian wines every once in a while, and we do have an Italian house wine. But this is essentially a collection of my favourite wines in the valley.”
Don’t leave without a satisfying slice of tiramisu or a shared chocolate ganache tart (it’s gluten free). From appetizers to desserts to the people looking after you, it’s all about the details here.
“You’ve got to do something special to attract people and we have that with Tristan and our staff,” Trevor says. “It’s the warm smile, the knowledge of the wine and the food. The little things become very important.”
Satisfying your every craving is what they set out to do at Il Mercato. In the summer, the patio is packed. Come winter, pick a cosy corner booth or the shared energy of the big group table.
“We’re in the business of making memories. Our hope is that you leave nourished and satisfied,” Trevor adds.
Whatever way you choose to enjoy Il Mercato, you can always expect that little something extra…including the leftovers, thanks to generous, platter-size portions. It means the enjoyment doesn’t have to end when you walk out the door, and those few late-night bites of take-home Tiramisu will have you dreaming of your next Il Mercato experience.
Il Mercato is open seven days a week from 3 to 9 pm. Reservations are recommended. Visit ilmercatosocialkitchen.com