The young people in Spain, they never get drunk. "Tortilla, tortilla, bring us more tortilla!' they cry, and they just keep drinking all night," explains 67-year-old Segundo Carretero, extending his thumb and little finger and tipping his hand to and fro in a pantomime of how those spunky revelers swill their sangria. Carretero is the father of Miguel Carretero, a.k.a. "Guido," who makes the pizzas and other Italian food at the family restaurant, Guido's Pizza and Tapas. Miguel's mother, Genoveva Carretero, steps behind the stove on Friday and Saturday nights to turn out tapas, or Spanish-style appetizers. The Carreteros, who came to the United States from Madrid when Miguel was 3 years old, recently consolidated their two Italian restaurants into a single new place on the Hill. Although the restaurant on Shaw Avenue has a full menu of pizzas, pastas and sandwiches, the family decided to offer tapas because they wanted St. Louisans to taste a few of the dishes that represent their glorious Spanish heritage.
The elder Mr. Carretero's observation that food blunts the inebriating effects of alcohol is expressed with a bit more erudition -- but considerably less charm -- by culinary historians. They note that in Spain, the bar food is intended to complement the wine, whereas in America the wine is often sipped by itself before dinner to pique the appetite. The agreeable practice of zig-zagging from one bar to another on foot and munching delectable tidbits on each junket, a tradition known as tapeo, originated in Spain. The itinerant grazers are called tapeadors, and they pride themselves on their ability to home in on the choicest morsels at each stop in this movable feast. The tapas are accompanied by bracing glasses of sherry, sangria or other wine. After a vivifying round of food and drink, the hardiest tapeadors belly up to an abundant meal, either at a restaurant or at home: They are the champion athletes in the sport of endurance eating.
Of course, the art of tapeo can't be cultivated in St. Louis, and even Guido's isn't yet a full-fledged tapas bar. The restaurant hopes to be granted a liquor license by the end of the year. For now, savvy customers bring their own wine, and no corkage fee is charged. Miguel would eventually like to install a refrigerated case in the bar area to display a selection of cold tapas. He also plans to develop Italian and Spanish wine lists to round out the restaurant's Mediterranean menus. Tapas, priced from $2.50-$10, are currently offered only on Friday and Saturday nights, but Miguel is learning how to cook his mother's homespun recipes, and he intends to expand the menu to weeknights and to introduce one new Spanish dish a month. He's already added two plates to the original list of eight tapas. But each evening when the tapas run out, alas, their ranks are not replenished. In fact, several items -- including flan, the only dessert on the Spanish menu -- weren't available when we ordered them.
Most of the tapas are seafood appetizers. Cod Bacalao à la Vizcaina is a deeply satisfying peasant dish of mild, silty-textured salt cod enfolded in a rustic tomato sauce. This type of fish, a staple in Spain and Portugal, is salted and dried for preservation. Then, to restore its plump texture and draw out the salt before it's prepared and eaten, the cod is soaked for one or two days in several changes of water. Tapas, however, are usually finger foods. Gambas al Ajillo, for example, is a deceptively innocuous-looking plate of shelled shrimp and crunchy splinters of garlic sautéed in olive oil. Like free bar nuts, the glistening shrimp provoke an uncontrollable binge of rote eating. And you won't need utensils to nosh calamares à la Romana, a tangle of fried squid served with lemon wedges. However, like other fried seafood -- shrimp, oysters, fish -- calamari matches up well with creamy sauces and seems dry without a condiment.
When you've polished off the seafood, tuck into a tortilla espagñola, or "Spanish omelet." At Guido's, it's a puffy, nicely browned strata of eggs, waxy potatoes and onions. The round omelet is sliced, and the four triangles are served at room temperature, just as they are in the bars of Seville. Empanadillas, or "little pastries," are another delectable choice from Guido's tapas menu. These homely turnovers, each about the size of a pudgy taco, are filled with scraps of green pepper and rough-hewn hunks of chicken, shimmering with moistness. The bubbly crusts bear furrowed indentations around the edges where fork tines were used to seal the dough, giving the pockets a virtuous, homemade look. Our server apologized because a crescent-shaped piece resembling a bite mark was missing from one of the pastries, and she assured us that no one had sunk his teeth into the savory little pillow. Come to think of it, though, who could resist?