Family recipes, business know-how behind success of alumnus’ Pizzeria Mercato
Gabe Barker planned to be a teacher and was working toward a credential at UNCG when he realized he really wanted to follow his parents into the restaurant business.
Today, he’s at the helm of Pizzeria Mercato in downtown Carrboro, where he strives to give his patrons “an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.” He says pizza is “the coal that drives the train engine” of the vegetable-focused menu, which also includes salads, homemade pastas, and gelato. Many of the ingredients come from the nationally recognized farmers market across the street, which inspires his cooking.
In this environment, he feels right at home. The 2010 College of Arts and Sciences graduate has vivid boyhood memories of hanging around his mom and dad’s Magnolia Grill in Durham after school, doing his homework and sometimes getting “baited into doing difficult prep tasks.” In high school, he moved to the front of the house as a busboy. “My dad wanted to teach me the power of making my own money,” he recalls.
After growing up in Chapel Hill, Barker was drawn to UNCG for college because of its proximity to home and the strength of its bachelor of arts programs. He majored in history, planning to teach until he realized he wanted to “go all-in on cooking.”
After graduation, he approached his parents about going to culinary school. Barker remembers, “Once they stopped laughing at me, they advised me to go work in someone else’s restaurant for a year and then we’d talk about school.”
The job he landed, through an acquaintance of his dad, was in San Francisco at a “casual fine dining Italian restaurant” that was also owned by a husband and wife. He stayed for six years and forgot about culinary school. “I realized that my experience and the skills I had developed at UNCG in note-taking and studying were great assets.” He felt ready to launch out on his own.
He went back to his parents, and this time the topic was opening his own restaurant. They agreed to help and offered financial assistance. His dad found the building where Pizzeria Mercato opened in 2016 and remains there to this day. His father is also in charge of the all-Italian wine list.
In the restaurant’s early days, Barker, with the help of his late mother, a New Yorker who was a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, developed a signature pizza dough, “a cross between New York and Neopolitan.” He uses a gas-powered oven to make it crisp. “We do all we can in-house,” he says. They reach out for ingredients only if they know someone else who may make it better, such as mozzarella from Wisconsin.
His favorite part of being a restaurateur is the personal relationships. “The people who work with me day to day are like family to me. The farmers and purveyors are part of my community.”
“So many of my formative memories are around food and family,” says Barker, who, as a child, traveled with his parents to new places and tried new foods. “That really resonated with me. Eating shouldn’t just be about sustenance, but about the people you’re with, the experience.”
Story by Mary Daily for Manning Words, Inc.
Photography courtesy of Pizzeria Mercato