Is Acero the best new restaurant St. Louis has seen in several years?
Jim Fiala’s different approach to Italian food moves beyond veal marsala and cannoli. It allows for the little-of-this-little-of-that approach that modern diners prefer, giving happiness to both those who need to control the calories (our hands waving wildly in the air here) and those who like to try many different things (hands waving wildly in the air again). But it’s quite possible to have a more usual two- or three-course meal—just not as much fun, in our opinion.
One of the best options is to start ordering a little at a time, as one would with tapas. There are lots of choices. Depending on how one counts, there are at least 21 options for the small courses, ranging in price from $3 to $10. Dishes of various olives, cheeses, cured meats like mortadella and salami, and vegetables can be had; we’ve tried all, and while we liked them a great deal, particular attention must be paid to the contorni, or vegetables. While contorni are referred to as "sides," these are closer to what’s offered on an antipasto table near the entrance of many restaurants in Italy. We’ve tried grilled asparagus and endive, brussels sprouts roasted with pancetta, snow peas with pepper, carrots with mint, all yummy, and what must be the most outstanding parsnips ever seen in a St. Louis restaurant. Parsnips? Yes, little chunks roasted and as sweet as candy. Quite a surprise, quite a pleasure.
The menu design and approach is not unlike sushi, if that makes the international leap a little easier.
The cheese is excellent, the olives tasty, and the salumi, which is how the Italians refer to what we’d call delicatessen meats, is fascinating. Fiala works with several producers around the country, including Oldani’s on the Hill, now owned by Larry Fuse of Lorenzo’s, and the Seattle salumeria of Mario Batali’s father. And, oh, yes, Acero is making its own bread to go with all these good nibbles. One can make the argument, of course, that most of this isn’t cooking, it’s shopping. Well, not exactly. It’s looking high and low for excellent suppliers, storing things like cheese properly, and delivering the material so that it doesn’t seem like something that might have come out of your neighbor’s Frigidaire.
Pasta is sized for first courses, although our bet is that requests for entree-sized portions won’t be scorned. We’ve had arguments over which ravioli is best, the mushroom-filled, cheese-sauced ones, or the giant spinach ravioli filled with an egg yolk that cooks softly as the ravioli is simmered. That one’s sauced with basil oil. The pasta, too, is made in-house, nicely al dente.
And then there’s the polenta, poured tableside onto a slab of marble, with various toppings. It’s an appetizer-sized serving for four guests, a small entree for two. Of the toppings, highest marks go to the lamb ragu, done in a classic Bolognese style. The deeply, joyously flavorful sauce uses mostly its own juices, along with a few vegetables, rather than a tomato sauce. We’ve also had it with the mushroom sauce, which is full-bodied and rich, but it was the lamb that caused everyone at our table to fall into a rapturous silence with the first forkful.
The polenta also accompanies an entree of porchetta, slow-roasted pork that’s falling-apart tender, deeply succulent, a little rosemary hanging around to add to the excitement. (We’re hoping that eventually some crispy skin will join it on the plate.) Among the other offerings are a Florentine-style steak with garlic and olive oil and a fish soup with fish, shrimp and mussels. Our only complaint is the veal sweetbread scallopini wasn’t up to snuff. The sweetbreads were whole, rather than sliced scallopini-style, which was a little surprise, but they were seriously overcooked, becoming rubbery and losing their delicate taste. The white wine-pancetta sauce was tasty but not enough to salvage the sweetbreads, a delicacy of which we’re normally quite fond.
We’re quite taken with the desserts, too. For one thing, the hot chocolate cake is not the gooey-centered thing that’s become such a cliche. Yes, this is hot, and very soft in the middle, but not like pudding, and a bite of it with the rich vanilla ice cream is better than what you ever got at a birthday party when you were a kid. Cake-and-ice-cream bliss. We tried a pot de creme, which is French rather than Italian, but Italians point out that the French learned fine cooking from the Medici family when little Marie married the Dauphin. Smooth and rich, it was flavored with chocolate and hazelnut, pudding for adults. But the surprising favorite was what the waiter called budino, the Italian word for pudding. Budino comes in many styles, gussied up with flavors and liqueurs and nuts in various combinations. But this was just a plain simple custard, lightly sweetened, perfectly cooked and as silky as a baby’s cheek. The ultimate flan.
The all-Italian wine list fits well, and 24 of the choices are available as quartinos, a quarter-liter, which equals two small glasses. That makes mixing and matching even easier, and it’s possible to taste two different wines, like a white and a red with different courses, or even two reds, one for lamb and one for beef.
Service is smooth, and the personnel has learned the often-tricky technique of working in close quarters to serve the polenta and other small plates. We’re also pleased with what Fiala has done with the interior; the back room, once notorious for its decibel level, seems to be much more comfortable. We’re told that some tables are left open for walk-in customers, which is nice, and there are about five dozen seats outside, where passing buses and downtown Maplewood provide the visuals. However, we’d say this is a spot where reservations are important. We were very pleased with Acero, and it’s nice to see Fiala with a third establishment, very different but certainly as attractive and enjoyable as the Crossing and Liluma, his other restaurants.
And one more thing: Acero is pronounced as though the "c" were a "ch," as in "Heigh, ho, the cherry-o." You’ll be singing when you walk out.
7266 Manchester Rd., Maplewood
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Passable