A symphony of small plates plays on in Maplewood
Photograph by Kevin A.Roberts
Average Main Course: $16
Reservations: Your call, but diners with reservations usually get the best tables.
Dress: Anything Italian will work, from Missoni to Mossimo.
Chef: Adam Gnau
Dinner at Acero comes across less as a meal, more as an unfolding series of eating sensations. It’s like a play, with as many acts as your appetite can sustain, as you grow satisfied—utterly satisfied—and contemplate with resignation the reality that common sense argues against, well, just one more.
Acero became a near-instant sensation when it opened a little more than five years ago. Given its reputation, the first-time diner, upon arriving, might feel disappointed. Little distinguishes the interior from other upscale eateries. Exposed brick walls: check. Wooden floor: check. Framed photos, soft lighting, tables to accommodate couples or larger parties: check, check, check. Acero typifies Maplewood’s thriving downtown. Inviting and convivial, the atmosphere is animated, though not raucous. Service is impeccable. Formality takes a back seat to a sophisticated urban ambience, just as the menu avoids cliché and goes for the creative and unexpected.
Before you approach that menu, know that all portions are small—as with formal Italian meals. You’ll want three courses: a main, a pasta dish, and one or two of those wonderful starters.
A splendid way to get things going is with the crostini, topped with a thick, delicious, smoky caramel puddle of chicken-liver mousse that’s been stirred with enough black truffle oil to provide an elegance to the simple preparation. (The quartet of crostini is much too rich for one person. Split it with dining companions—even if you have to offer it to nearby tables.)
Acero’s egg raviolo is on every local gourmet’s bucket list. It lives up to its renown. A strip of pasta the size of a backstage pass is folded around cheeses—mascarpone, ricotta, and Parmesan—and a golden egg yolk. A fork’s edge spills out the lustrous sunshine. Egg, cheeses, and pasta act in concert on the palate. But the salt-sprinkled gnocco fritto is even better. Imagine a puffy beignet, covered not in powdered sugar, but in parchment slices of prosciutto di Parma. Sweet, salty, and nutty, the ham’s flavors combine with the brown, crunchy pastry. This extravagant meat donut is one of St. Louis’ best dishes.
Salads are appreciably light: for example, field greens spritzed with a citrus tang and white balsamic vinegar, tossed with pine nuts and dusted with Parmigiano. Recommended is one beautifully understated with delicate white anchovy fillets atop roasted red peppers, a piquant salsa verde, sprouts, and nutty crumbles of pecorino.
Pastas are house-made, lovingly al dente. Twists of gemelli are tossed with nibbles of roasted chicken, chopped mushrooms, pepper slices, and a toss of herbs that accents the chicken and plays off of the pasta. Tagliatelle ribbons swirl in a deep plate, tossed with slivers of wild mushrooms. Local supermarkets should be carrying this wonderful pasta, broad enough to hold thinner sauces like the one here, of warm brown butter and a scatter of grainy Parmesan. If you want to see how beautifully Acero’s kitchen can create from simplicity, then try this pasta: stozzapreti—“priest chokers,” a twisted, elongated cavatelli—is customarily matched with meat sauces. It works just as beautifully, though, with a light basil pesto.
There were four main courses offered on our visit. A “five-hour slow-roasted porchetta” had us wondering, “Why five? Would it have been better at six? OK at four?” No matter—it’s splendid, the boneless pork pungent with garlic and herbs, roasted to succulent tenderness. It’s completely rewarding, served with sautéed kale and a potato purée with a thick sugo, or gravy.
There is an inflection of smoke in the lamb ribs—not enough to make you think of barbecue, just the suggestion of flame that adds to the savory taste. The ribs arrive juicy-pink, presented atop a dollop of polenta, along with roasted potatoes and braised carrots.
A quartet of sea scallops is pushed into a mound of pale celeriac purée. The roasty starchiness of the latter complements the tender, glistening flesh of the scallops.
A chicken Milanese was the only disappointment that we sampled. It was fine by normal Italian eatery standards, but lackluster in comparison to the other offerings here.
Of late, desserts disappoint at even superior eateries, but Acero’s desserts are outstanding. A warm, gooey chocolate torte treats your palate with an extravagant essence of chocolate. A crème anglaise decorates a bread pudding that strikes that difficult balance between custardy softness and crusty top. Your best bet: plump figs stuffed with crunchy almond and hazelnut crumbs. And yes, the Castello Banfi grappa is an extra $10 with the figs—and yes, it’s worth it. The taste of the sweet figs matched with the sharp, licorice pungency of the grappa is a first-class way to finish the meal.
A selection of wines is exclusively Italian. It tends toward the expensive. Consider the quartino, about one-third of a bottle, affordably priced and suitable for nearly every course. Unless you’re proficient in Italian wines, trust your waiter. That said, don’t pass on the 2010 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Rosso Corvina, the perfect match for that porchetta. If you’re contemplating the lamb—and you should—call ahead and ask whether you can have a bottle of the 2008 Gaja Sito Moresco opened; it’s dense and spicy, but it needs at least an hour to catch its breath. There have been better matches with broiled scallops than the ’09 Umani Ronchi Pecorino, but this amazing wine, lemon-tinted with a tinge of green, is worth stretching things.
Consistently superior, Acero has earned its status on the St. Louis dining scene. Few places deliver and delight with every visit.
The Bottom Line: Creative Italian fare that oscillates between rustic and avanti.