The Kansas City Star

Iron chandeliers from Siena, Italy, are suspended from the 14-foot-tall original tin ceiling at Mercato, a store for new and centuries-old furniture and accessories.

Giant vintage maps and framed architectural remnants hang on walls that look as if artists have dripped espresso on their cream-hued surfaces. The effect is one that that owner Mary Lies and her husband achieved with diluted coffee-colored paint. All this seems ripped from the pages of a European design magazine. However, the store is located across the street from Dollar General within the block-long downtown shopping district of De Soto.

”It’s a specialty shop for the adventurous,” Lies says. “It’s for people who don’t mind going out of their way.”

Mercato falls into the same destination-shopping category as Nell Hill’s in Atchison, Kan. Lies chose De Soto because it’s fairly close to her Olathe home, and customers can stop in during day trips to Lawrence. She likes the pastoral setting, and the quiet is nice for customers who are contemplating furniture, Lies explains. Rustic wooden farmhouse tables that seat more than a dozen are a key component of the store.

“Customers identify with the history and lifestyle of Italy,” says Lies, who travels several times each year to Florence and the Italian countryside. “And food plays a starring role.”

Winter is always a welcome time to have dinner parties, and much of Lies’ inventory appeals to foodies and home-entertaining enthusiasts. There are giant baskets and lidded glass and pewter cheese dishes that customers also use as honey containers and salt cellars. A long wooden paddle isn’t necessarily for pizza ovens — it could be a dramatic platter for bruschetta. Lies serves up the oven-toasted bread slices with a variety of toppings, such as gorgonzola cheese with cherry preserves as well as white beans with rosemary drizzled with olive oil.

Just before the holidays, Lies introduced Mercato Table, three collections of food- and dishwasher-safe tableware made by Italian artisans. The pieces range from $20 mugs to $400 enormous bowls.

“I’d find all these beautiful pieces, but they couldn’t be used for food because they contained lead,” Lies says. The new pieces she designed are safe for serving up her favorite dish in style: Linguine with Pesto Genovese, a pasta with potatoes, green beans and pesto.

Lies’ Fresco collection was inspired by colors found in frescoes throughout Italy, such as red, lapis blue, orange and several shades of green. The vibrant palette lends a modern aesthetic to the simple plates, bowls and mugs. At the same time, the hefty dinnerware and serving pieces are earthy with speckles of other colors, so it’s easy to mix and match them.

The dishware is made of red Italian clay from Montelupo, an important center since medieval times for manufacturing Tuscan ceramics. From that same red clay, Lies also created the Historical collection based on classic antique Italian designs. Some of the ornateness has been eliminated, making the patterns more graphic.

“It gives it a fresher look that can go with either traditional or modern pieces,” Lies says.

Another Mercato Table design is Olivewood, with two sizes of 6-inch-tall mosaic olivewood serving bowls. The rich grain pattern reminiscent of marbled paper.

Lies plans to continue adding to Mercato Table with more olivewood options as well as casual linens that would complement the dinnerware. Chic, rustic runners on the store’s long tables are actually burlap shopping bags.

Lies, whose family is Italian, started traveling to Europe when she was 18. Besides the people and the places, she loved the things she saw and started bringing them back with her. She’s become an Italian furniture and accessories resource for designers nationwide through shows such as the Lauritzen Gardens Antique & Garden Show in Omaha and the online marketplace

With Mercato, Lies has helped turn De Soto into a dinner-party resource. She points customers in the direction of Steve’s Meat Market for gourmet meats and Prairie Star Farm, which sells seasonal produce at Whole Foods in Overland Park and the Merc in Lawrence.

“They’re hidden gems,” Lies says. “But the foodies, they know.”

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