Marco Polo comes to the Fillmore

Photographs of Spice Ace at 1821 Steiner by Daniel Bahmani


On their honeymoon in Italy, neighborhood residents Olivia Dillan and Ben Balzer floated by Marco Polo’s house on a canal in Venice, which inspired Dillan to leave the tech industry behind.

Then serendipity took charge. Three weeks after Dillan and Balzer decided to start a shop of their own, the space at 1821 Steiner Street between Bush and Sutter, former home to a bridal shop, became available. And now Spice Ace, their clean white store with marble countertops and a bejeweled chandelier, has opened, offering local shoppers 250 herbs, spices and blends from around the world.

“I’d never want to open a store anywhere else,” says Dillan as she floats around the store, eagerly showing off salts and herbs in white-topped glass jars. “This is my home and my favorite neighborhood.”

The triangular Cyprus flake salt looks like a new-fallen snowflake; Dillan recommends a pinch to perk up a slice of fresh tomato. “The fleur de sel was harvested from salt ponds in France,” she says. “All you need is a little bit and — pop!”

From truffle to rosemary, lavender and Himalayan pink salt, the new shop offers a world of nonprocessed spices. The herbs come from organic or sustainable farming practices.

Dillan and Balzer have traveled the globe learning about spices and how they are used in their native lands. Dillan wants to help customers develop their own blends, and hopes eventually to host blending seminars at the store.

Balzer and Dillan’s tastes differ, although they both agree on quality. Balzer prefers peppers and chilies — especially the smoked ones. They house an extensive chili collection, including whole red savina habaneros, one of the hottest peppers on earth.

Spice Ace offers white, red, pink, green and four types of whole black peppercorns — along with Balzer’s favorite brand of pepper crushers, William Bounds.

“The beauty of William Bounds is that they crush the pepper versus grind it,” he says. “The wheel doesn’t clog. These are my favorite crushers and we’re offering a variety to our customers.”

Also on Spice Ace shelves: chervil, commonly used in herbs de Provence, along with smoked pasilla de Oaxaca, a somewhat fruitier chile, six different Himalayan salts and a tart, lemony sumac from Turkey. Other offerings include infused sugars, but only one ginger candy. And forget chocolate. Balzer suggests adding ground cardamom to ice cream.

If it’s paprika you’re after, you’ll have to ask. It’s hidden away in drawers because it loses its flavor and color when touched by light.

“Not all spices are aromatic, but they come alive in oil or with heat,” Dillan says. “I love to cook, and using fantastic spices makes it better. I want to give people the small joys and happiness I get from using good spices.”