Look at this guy," our waiter said. "He's in Heaven."
It's not Heaven. It's Maplewood. Specifically, it's Acero, a terrific new Italian restaurant doing its share and then some to drag the St. Louis dining scene into the 21st century.
Our waiter was referring to yours truly, about to do a face-plant into my mushroom ravioli. These delicate morsels, adrift in a sauce of melted, mildly tangy caciotta (a Tuscan cheese made mostly from sheep's milk), were very good, but the true object of my lust was the black truffle that had been grated atop the dish, its aroma and flavor as heady as new love.
Extreme, you say? That black truffle was a big deal. Executive chef Tim Zenner came out of the kitchen to grate it tableside. It cost me $15 more than double the price of the mushroom ravioli by itself.
And it was worth every penny.
Black truffles are as rare around these parts as a Scott Rolen base hit. The expense might not be for everyone and black truffle won't always be available but it's only one of the surprises Zenner and owner Jim Fiala, of the Crossing in Clayton and Liluma in the Central West End, have in store at their three-month-old Acero.
This isn't your usual St. Louis Italian restaurant. You won't have to choose between red sauce or white. You won't find Provel bubbling atop your veal Parmesan. You won't find veal Parmesan. Instead you can enjoy artisanal salumi, polenta served tableside on a slab of marble and what might be the most user-friendly wine list in town.
Acero occupies the spot on Manchester Road vacated by Arthur Clay's. You enter into the main dining room, an airy space with exposed-brick walls and both booths and tables. It can be loud when busy, though no more so than other similar-size (and popular) places. A second, smaller dining room is quieter but lacks ambiance; I sat in a booth eye-level with a row of three unused electrical outlets and a smudged window that overlooks a drab roof. (There's also ample patio seating out front.)
As our waiter explained on my first visit, you're meant to order in the traditional Italian style: an antipasto, followed by a pasta dish, then an entrée. If that much food not to mention dessert strikes you as too much, not to worry. The menu has no hard and fast rules. In truth, despite its sophisticated approach, Acero exudes a casual vibe.
You could easily make a grazing meal from the appetizers alone. These are relatively straightforward: marinated olives, a few salads, a soup and a bruschetta of the day. I enjoyed a simple, perfect pairing of luscious prosciutto di San Daniele with chunks of cantaloupe and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Asparagus with speck (similar in appearance to prosciutto, but with a more assertive flavor) and fonduta (fontina cheese thickened with egg and cream) was also quite good.
If you love cured pork, Acero might be your nirvana. The salumi platter offers a selection of cured meats from some of the nation's top artisanal producers. I especially liked the paper-thin slices of rustic petit jesu from New York City's Biellese, and the sharply flavored coppa from Seattle's Salumi, owned by Armandino Batali, father of Mario. The salumi platter, as well as platters of cheese, which included the best Gorgonzola I've ever tasted, and contorni cooked vegetables served near room temperature are priced per person, but an order for one provides a generous amount of food.
Acero shines most brightly during the pasta course. The mushroom ravioli are exquisite, as is a single raviolo, about the size of an egg and containing surprise! a poached egg. The raviolo is surrounded by a swirl of puréed spinach; when you break it open to reveal the yolk, you have a dish nearly as colorful as it is delicious.
Linguini is tossed with chopped tomatoes, onions and guanciale, cured pork jowls. The guanciale is the selling point here; it lends the dish an extraordinary depth of porky flavor, with a definite edge of heat. The guanciale is so tasty that an otherwise excellent dish of orecchiette with pancetta and cauliflower seemed a little humdrum in comparison.
If the entrées don't quite measure up to the pastas, that's more a credit to the pastas than a criticism of the main dishes. Only one actually disappointed: two soft-shell crabs served over chopped cauliflower and potatoes in a meek beurre rouge.
You don't need to do much with soft-shell crab: fry 'em and then stick 'em between slices of bread. That fact and the $30 price tag raises the bar on a dish like this, and while the crabs themselves were lovely, the rest was bland. There needed to be an acid of some kind perhaps even just a squeeze of lemon to bring out the flavors.
Plump, tender cap steak, on the other hand, came nicely accented with a topping of gremolata and fontina cheese. And grilled trout was a perfect dish for an evening in late spring, the flavor of the tender fillets strengthened by asparagus and basil.
Polenta with one of four ragus can be ordered as an entrée, as a separate course or as a side dish to share. Your waiter brings the polenta and the ragu to your table in separate bowls. He spreads the polenta across the marble slab, spoons the ragu on top and sprinkles it with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's an impressive presentation, though it presents a practical problem. The marble slab is cool, and the polenta loses heat very quickly. It doesn't become cold, or even room temperature, but if you like your food piping hot, you might be unpleasantly surprised.
I had the polenta with braised Missouri lamb ragu as an entrée. Temperature issues aside, the polenta was very good, not too creamy, not too firm. The ragu was fantastic, the lamb braised nearly to a puddle, with a gentle roasted sweetness, an earthy savor and just the right note of lamb's tang. Fair warning: While the pasta dishes come in portions sized for a multicourse meal, the entrées I tried were substantial after appetizers and pasta, a bit daunting, even.
If after three courses you still have room for dessert, you might find one of the housemade sorbets or gelatos refreshing. Blueberry gelato was certainly flavorful, if not as creamy as I'd have liked. Semifreddo in strawberry syrup was an indulgence, its texture sometimes like ice cream, sometimes like cheesecake.
However much you decide to eat, be sure to take advantage of the well-annotated and exclusively Italian wine list. There are about 30 bottles available, with as many in the $75-to-$125 range as in the $25-to-$40. You might instead try a few wines by the quartino, a carafe that holds roughly a third of a bottle. Not only is this is an excellent value relative to wine by-the-glass, but at Acero it offers the chance to try wines you might hesitate to splurge for. A 2003 Righetti Amarone, for example, is a stunning wine, rich and earthy a perfect pair for that lamb ragu. You might not spend $60 on a bottle, but at $20 for a quartino to share with your companion, it's hard not to treat yourself. If you're on a budget, try the 2004 Valle Dell'Acate Cerasuolo. For $11 you get a lovely taste of fresh cherries and a supple body.
I might not have tried that Amarone without the urging of our waiter, and on all my visits I found the service very knowledgeable about the menu if tough to flag down when needed, considering how busy the restaurant was. There were a few missteps: a waiter who wanted to pour red wine directly into the glasses we'd used for a white; nearby tables that weren't cleared throughout a nearly two-hour meal.
So Acero isn't perfect. And it lacks the explosive creativity in the kitchen that would push it into the elite upper echelon of St. Louis restaurants. Still, in its celebration of artisanal foods and the sheer joy of good food and wine, it's an incredibly important new fixture on the St. Louis dining scene.
It ain't Heaven, but we're getting closer.
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