By Caroline Dipping
When it rained six Saturdays out of eight in San Diego this winter, Catt White wasn’t fazed. She could still be found at dawn, dodging between downpours and dragging barricades into place, setting up for the Little Italy Mercato, the certified farmers market she created 18 months ago.
Rain or shine, like mail delivery, White, who has been dubbed the Maestra of the Mercato, and her outdoor store prevail every Saturday on Date Street in the urbane neighborhood just north of San Diego’s downtown overlooking the bay.
And, no matter the weather, the people come. Every week, about 3,500 foodies visit the Mercato.
“Two Saturdays in particular, it rained almost all day,” White recalled. “The amazing thing was, our farmers and food vendors were still out there with galoshes and umbrellas, ducking under tents during the worst of it.
“We put it in our newsletter. ‘You still got to eat even if it’s wet. Bundle up, and come out.’_”
The Mercato will go dark this Saturday for only the third time in its history to accommodate Little Italy’s sprawling annual ArtWalk.
Over the years, the Little Italy Association had noodled with the idea of hosting a farmers market and made a couple of halfhearted attempts, but nothing ever really got off the ground. Then, it came up against the force of nature named Catt White.
White, 53, has lived in Little Italy for seven years and is a devout foodie with more than 20 years in the restaurant industry, including owning a cafe in Phoenix. She originally wanted to start a Community Supported Agriculture program in the neighborhood, but met with lackluster enthusiasm at association board meetings and community events until, one day, she got her chance.
“They (the association board) dared me,” she said. “They told me if I can figure out how to make it happen, go ahead.”
With her characteristic energy, White immediately plowed forward. For inspiration, she thought of the great al fresco markets she frequents when vacationing in San Francisco, New York and Paris.
“I started talking to local chefs and food purveyors and Slow Food San Diego,” she said. “I’m on the board of the California Restaurant Association. I knew a lot of the farmers and the chefs involved with the farmers.
“The idea was to create a great neighborhood grocery store out on the street on Saturday mornings.”
When it first opened, the Mercato had 40 vendors, just big enough so people could accomplish most of their shopping in one stop, White said. Within three months, the number of vendors grew to 62, which “nicely filled two and a half blocks,” she said.
Today, there are 92 vendors. Sensitive to the full-time Little Italy merchants, White’s Mercato does not duplicate what is already offered in the area.
“There are a lot of farmers markets with prepared food,” said White. “That is not what this neighborhood was missing.”
“I’m pretty picky about who comes in,” she said, opting for local, organic farmers wherever possible.
And she is stringent about adhering as closely as possible to the “locavore” concept of only selling foods produced within 100 miles, although she admits that to be truly locavore, she would be pulling in produce from Mexico, something the laws for certified farmers markets do not permit. Most of the Mercato’s merchandise hails from San Diego County and southern Riverside County, although White occasionally casts her net to the Central Coast for things that don’t grow here.
White’s system for charging vendors for a space is simple.
“Basically, the closer to the dirt you are, the more we try to subsidize you,” she said. “The closer you are to the origin of production, the less we charge.”
Farmers are typically charged $25 a week to peddle their produce, whereas food artisans and crafters might pay $75 to $95 for a table.
Polito Family Farms, with its Meyer lemons and fruits, was one of the first vendors to get on board. Then came Lone Oak Ranch with apples, Schaner Farms with green garlic and more recently Suzie’s Organic Farm with microgreens. A long roster of purveyors includes: Assenti Pasta; Bread & Cie; Lisko Imports with olives, cheeses and desserts; Cafe Virtuoso coffee; Knight Salumi; Eclipse Chocolat; and Belen Bakery with flaxseed and sunflower seed bread.
But, for restaurant chefs who want top-notch ingredients in their own home cooking, the just-picked fruits and veggies and the farmers who grow them are the big draw.
“The produce is one of my passions,” said Brian Sinnott, chef of the Hotel del Coronado’s 1500 Ocean and a member of Cooks Confab, a group of chefs that host themed food events, including a wildly popular street food event last November at the Mercato. “I like to interact with the farmers, especially Peter Schaner, a farmer in Valley Center.”
“He’s always there with his wife and his zillion kids,” Sinnott said. “It’s personal for me.”
White also considers it a huge perk of her job to be able to engage directly with the farmers every Saturday and to visit their farms and “play.”
“I like these guys. They are a great group of people,” she said.
White continues to work closely with the Little Italy Association, keeping members abreast of developments in her ever-expanding market. She credits the association’s support with making the market what it is.
“Little Italy has developed so beautifully,” she said. “I can hop on the trolley. I can walk downtown. It was a nice compromise to find that urban feeling in a tiny space with a big view that was still close to the kids, but back in the cool weather.”
White’s food-forward thinking and energy have not stopped with the Little Italy Mercato. She is currently working on publishing an online “greener tables” trade magazine for vendors and restaurateurs, exploring how restaurants can improve their environmental impact.
Closer still on the horizon looms the May 12 opening of White’s newest venture: a farmers market on Adams Avenue on the border of Normal Heights and Kensington.
“There are definitely a lot of chefs who market in Little Italy who have expressed they could use a Wednesday afternoon market,” said White.
Chef Sinnott gives White kudos for her Little Italy accomplishment.
“I think part of the vibe with the Mercato is that it’s not just a collection of people thrown together. There is a plan behind it.
“It’s like when you are creating a menu,” he said. “Why is certain stuff on the plate? It’s there for a reason.”
SPAGHETTI WITH PANCETTA, GARLIC AND STINGING NETTLES
1/2 cup stinging nettles
1/4 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup pancetta, cut into small cubes (see note)
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
Makes two servings
Bring a large stock pot of water to a boil. Blanch stinging nettles for 45 seconds, then place in ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain. Remove leaves from stems and roughly chop leaves in small dice. Discard stems.
Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water 10 to 12 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving 3 tablespoons of the cooking liquid.
Heat a saute pan over medium-low heat. Add pancetta, and cook till golden and crisp. Increase heat to medium-high, add garlic, and cook till fragrant.
Add the stinging nettles; stir to combine, and cook till leaves begin to crisp. Add cooking liquid and pasta; stir to coat pasta.
Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
To serve, twirl pasta around the end of a set of tongs and place onto a plate. Garnish with parmesan.
Notes: Chef Jen Felmley uses Knight Salumi pancetta, stinging nettles from Suzie’s Organic Farm or Schaner Farms, and lemons from Polito Farms. Handle nettles carefully when raw — they can sting. Cooking takes the “venom” out of them.
— From Mercato shopper and chef Jen Felmley
Caroline Dipping writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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