Review: Acero in Maplewood

There are times in your life where you simply have to thank someone. If this were an Oscar speech, we would be at the point of the very special thank you. The one where I thank the person who helped me in my darkest hour, when I thought my career was in jeopardy, in this case my dentist. So, thank YOU Dr. Brenda Switzer for nearly painlessly correcting some serious oversight on my part, saving my teeth, without which I could not eat.

And while we’re bestowing thanks, thank YOU Jim Fiala for bringing Acero (Italian for maple) to St. Louis, specifically Maplewood. Are you tired of drinking a light lager with a snow-saucer-sized portion of pasta drowned in cream sauce because you’re pretty sure the Chianti you saw being poured at the bar was coming from a bottle with straw on the bottom and candle wax on top? Yuh-huh, me too. Luckily, Acero embraces, like, the opposite of that.

Modeled after a typical wine bar (enoteca) in Italy, the experience starts when you order a glass of wine, graze on some antipasti and/or a small portion of simply prepared pasta and then, if you’re up to it, maybe an entrée or polenta topped with a ragù (this could easily be shared around the table also) or maybe just dessert and coffee.

First things first. Let’s rid ourselves of that acrid Chianti memory with a tour through the wine list. There are 26 selections that are served in quartino sizes (a quarter of a liter, a third of a bottle or somewhere between one and a half and two glasses) that go a long way to sharing and comparing. The bottle list isn’t long but it looks well thought out, with offerings in every price range. Unless you really know Italian wines, it might behoove you to ask your server for help with pairing.

Vino in hand, I progressed to the antipasti. I’m sure I looked at some of the individual items listed in this section, but I couldn’t get past the separate sushi-style menu for salumi, formaggi and contorni (cured meats, cheeses and vegetables) selections. On this menu, five or more choices are available individually or as combination plates. Personally, I just ordered all three combos and proceeded to destroy them.

Among my favorites was the capicola from Salumeria Biellese in New York City, a slightly dry salumi that, though it’s pork, had a flavor along the lines of a good corned beef with a ghost of spice. Gorgonzola surprised with a soft, creamy texture, just a little of that sharp blue taste and some pepper when I exhaled. Finally, there were the brussels sprouts and pancetta, rich and smooth with a touch of bitter left in the leaves that annunciated the caramelized sugars from sautéing.
House-made pastas are served in small portions and are paired with a few simple ingredients that leave their tastes clean and clear on the palate. Acero’s tagliatelle with French horn mushrooms is about a quarter-inch wide and thinner than fettuccine. These delicate ribbons of fresh pasta seemed to evaporate on my tongue, leaving behind the silky olive oil, butter, salt and earthy, meaty mushrooms. I can’t remember the last time I found this much enjoyment in a dish that wouldn’t inspire letters of outrage to my editor (regular readers will recall my weakness for foie gras).

Distant olives and crunchy capers behaved themselves and kept the salt in check when tossed with a stracci that seemed impossibly wide for its thinness. And then there was the Egg Raviolo. Two soft pillows of ravioli lay unassumingly on the plate – until my fork hit them, at which point vibrant yellow egg yolk spilled forth. As I attempted to get a bite I inadvertently mixed up the spinach and the white sauce a little, and when I finally managed a bite, it ended up tasting like a good béarnaise sauce.

Should you find yourself in the mood for an entrée or a big polenta serving, Acero is happy to oblige. The polenta dishes arrive with an almost ceremonial flair. A marble slab is placed before you, upon which loose and creamy polenta is poured. Ours was topped with a piquant wild boar ragù. The slab cools the polenta to a viscosity thick enough to be cut and served.

When I ordered the NY Steak Fiorentina, a thick, roasted, lemony steak with a perfume of garlic, I was not offered a choice of doneness. This aside, I thought it was a fine steak, but not one for which I would spend $32. I will most assuredly spend $35 for the melt-in-your-mouth-veal chop again and again. I was blown away by its ethereally citric butter and an earthy porcini crust. Pork Milanese was a breaded, lemony pork chop pounded to the size and shape of a ping pong paddle.

Two stellar desserts centered on vanilla gelato: In one, a scoop floated in espresso, and in the other, a scoop sat atop a warm chocolate tart with a liberal squirt of chocolate sauce.

Really nothing disappointed me at Acero, and only two things got under my skin. Polenta is nearly omnipresent on the menu; every entrée was coupled with the stuff. I mean, there has to be another starch for some of the dishes, right? The second, weirdly, was the grainy, pixilated graphic of a maple seed that’s copied and pasted onto everything, from Acero’s menus to its Web site; it picked at me like a scab. Fortunately, only one has anything to do with the food, and that wasn’t a deal-breaker.