It was a wet and gloomy night. (Apologies to Snoopy.) But our quartet of Dining Women had reservations at Acero, the chic Italian restaurant that highlights the intersection of Manchester Road and Southwest Avenue. The adjacent park lot made for easy access and our early arrival gave us a choice of seating.
Fine Dining in Maplewood
The smart, mod decor that began curbside continued indoors with black wood furnishings and trim, hardwood floors, and exposed brick. There was no attempt to create Little Italy: no checked tablecloths, no posters of gondoliers, no aproned-waiters hoisting platters of jumbo meatballs atop saucy noodles. In the atmosphere of restrained elegance, the plate sizes were proportioned to allow for ordering several courses, as you might expect to do in the village trattoria. Even the name Acero is a bit of a disguise. It’s the Italian word for “maple,” since the location is in Maplewood.
We immediately ordered a round of Grotto Fritto—no, it’s not an Italian corn chip. The little pillows of dough come swaddled in uber thin slices of prosciutto ham. Like French beignets, they nearly fly off the plate, leaving a bit of saltiness on the palate, compliments of the ham. One in our group thought the antipasto a little briny, while another—having lived in the Virginia area—found the taste reminiscent of Smithfield ham tucked into a fluffy biscuit.
My Taste Buds Drift Back in Time
It’s been years since I’ve tasted the dry-cured, smoked and aged Smithfield country ham so beloved by my family. I still remember the long scraping, soaking, and simmering required for my mother to reduce the saltiness before the meat ever went into the oven. But once baked, the ham was suitable for snacks or any festive occasion. It was often served along side the holiday turkey. And ,like the turkey, it was acceptable to debate whether or not the ham was as good as ones served on previous occasions Whatever the outcome, the bone always made a great pot of beans. From the looks of their website, it appears Smithfield has improved on the processing since those hams of yesteryear.
Yes, Grotto Fritto definitely brought back fond, hammy moments of my childhood.
Are You Up for a Four-Courser?
I noticed the menu offered an attractive package: a four-course taster, (antipasto, pasta, entree and dessert) for $40. I looked around me. The moderate portions being served at nearby tables made the meal seem do-able. Even so, we passed up the gastro-challenge. Instead, I ordered one of the specials of the day: a parsnip ravioli, in a browned butter sauce sprinkled with Parm, peas, and guanciale (flavorful pork jowl). Our server described the taste as “parsnipy.” I like that quality in the pale, carrot-shaped vegetable and found the dish quite pleasing and extremely well-flavored.
Another at our table ordered the Tagliolini embellished with wild mushrooms, shallots and Parm. All the pasta dishes got a hearty buonissimo. With an order of one dessert and four clashing spoons, we quickly wiped out the Caramel Panna Cotta.
Take away: A damp and dreary evening can be transformed into one that’s luscious and lovely, especially when spent at Acero.
Acero. 7266 Manchester Road in Maplewood. Open: Mon-Thu 5p-9p; Fri-Sat 5p-10p. Note: There are several cool food boutiques within walking distance of Acero, (Vom Fass, Larder & Cupboard, Penzeys, Kakao Chocolate), making the Maplewood neighborhood a perfect place to wile away the afternoon before an evening meal.