I normally don’t care for Italian food and unfortunately, Baltimore does very little to instill confidence about this particular food genre. Sure, there is a bounty of options both in the county and city, but dishes covered red sauce or alfredo sauce are a lame excuse for Italian food.
When Aggio opened up last summer in the former TATU location near PowerPlant Live, I was beyond giddy that Brian Voltaggio finally extended his Frederick/DC roots to Baltimore. Then I read it was Italian cuisine and I was a bit puzzled that the molecular gastronomy chef would open an Italian restaurant. Finally, on a rather warm winter evening I discovered the magic that is Aggio.
Aggio’s layout almost mirrors how TATU was setup with the bar in place of the sushi bar and two-tops lining the far wall. The dining room opens up to a larger tall ceiling area as you walk towards the back of the restaurant, and there seemed to be dining upstairs as well.
First impressions were very mixed since the restaurant legitimately resembles a dungeon. The very dark space combined with the dark walls and basic looking chandeliers makes for a bit of a dreary space. It also seemed like the space wasn’t entirely used to its full potential since most walls were bare and some fresh floral arrangements and/or color décor could have added some ambiance. There was also an empty space as you walk in, playing a movie on the brick wall via a projector screen…a bit odd.
The cocktails we ordered while waiting for our table to get flipped were also less than stellar. I got The King of Cool cocktail, which featured some of my favorite cocktail ingredients – rye whiskey, absinthe and bitters (amongst other things), but the cocktail just tasted like medicine and was shaken with ice so when poured into a half full glass it seemed like a bit of a rip off. My friend ordered his usual dirty vodka martini and out came a cocktail that had the color of grapefruit juice and apparently didn’t taste much better either. The Moscow mules the ladies in our party ordered were, however, very satisfying.
Things had nowhere to go but up from here, and thankfully they did – in a big way. Our waiter was very nice and gave us the usual spiel about menu highlights and pointed out that the five course chefs tasting menu ($65) was a good way of having a full dining experience. He also rightfully advised us that the portions were a bit on the smaller side, and that the menu is intended for diners to enjoy an antipasti, a primi (pasta course) as well as a secondi (entrée). When you add up the cost of having one item from each course it comes to about $60 per person anyway, so the tasting menu does make sense, although the portions of each course are a bit smaller than their a la carte brethren.
My wife got the tasting menu, while I got a la carte items since I really honed in on specific dishes I wanted to try. The other couple in our party opted for the same strategy. Simultaneously, the sommelier came around to educate us on the large Italian wine list. I specified my price range for a bottle and taste preference and the sommelier steered us towards Pietradolce Archineri 2011, a red bottle from an area near the Mount Etna volcano close to Sicily (per the wine list the volcano last erupted in May 2014, which I found interesting). The wine was delicious, smooth, robust and had an interesting taste which could have been attributable to its proximity to that volcano, but who knows.
Dinner starts off with some complimentary items from the chef. First the table got a parmesan funnel cake, which was very delectable, super airy and minimally greasy. Then we got what might have been the highlight of the meal, which isn’t intended to downplay the rest of the meal, it was just that good – the bread service. Freshly baked warm rosemary focaccia came to the table with a plate of mortadella mousse and a spreadable white cheese dressed with stunning olive oil. I don’t even like mortadella but I was sopping up every ounce of the mousse I got while trying to save enough bread for the cheese spread.
First courses followed soon after the bread service, which included foie terrina for me and my wife got the warm mushroom salad. I don’t eat foie gras often but this was a very tasty and clean preparation of chilled foie with a dried cherry reduction, hazelnuts and a small frisee salad to bright up the dish. The dish may have been a bit more interesting if the foie was seared and served warm, but I understand that’s not the preparation the chef was trying to showcase. It was a very solid dish regardless. The warm mushroom salad was served in sherry vinaigrette and a fried egg. Don’t be mistaken the egg was not sunny side up it was literally a hardboiled egg that was fried on the outside but still had a runny yoke, a very impressive preparation that paired great with the rich earthy mushrooms. I also sampled the beet salad which had goat cheese puree and pine nut brittle, which was also very tasty.
Next were the primi, or pasta course. I got the tonnarelli nero while others got the gnocchi. The tonnarelli gets the nero (black) from squid ink which is blended into the handmade pasta before it’s boiled. The pasta then gets wonderfully paired with lump crab and tied together with a uni (sea urchin roe) sauce. This dish was truly unique and one of the standouts for me. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the dish just really resembled the ocean – properly embracing Italian cuisine. The gnocchi was more of a safe bet but this was the gnocchi was truly the best I have ever had. Each pillow-y morsel was so light and airy, and subtly paired with trumpet mushrooms and truffle butter.
The next course was going to be course three of the chefs tasting menu, which me and my friend would have sat out since we both ordered a la carte and our last course was going to be the entrée. As the wait staff gave the ladies pappardelle with roasted rabbit, we were courteously brought lamb lasagna complimentary from the chef – a very nice touch. My wife was a bit off put at first by the thought of eating rabbit so I swapped my lasagna with her dish.
The rabbit was excellent; it was slow cooked it seemed like because it was so tender and had a clean flavor similar to chicken, but more interesting. The pappardelle had that chewy yet soft texture you only get from premium handmade pasta, which was well paired with the assortment of roasted mushrooms. After my wife saw how much I liked the dish she was finally intrigued to try it and she also loved it. The lamb lasagna was good but the flavors were a bit muddled and could have been seasoned better. It also just didn’t stand up to the other stellar pasta courses that were already presented.
Finally, the secondi, or entrees. At this point all of us were close to capacity, despite the smaller portions. I took our waiters recommendation on the pork osso buco. When it arrived it was a caveman size excellently trimmed piece of pork still on the bone (very minimal fat or gristle). Unlike most other slow cooking preparations, this dish wasn’t mushy at all, in fact the exterior was rather crispy while the meat was still fork tender. The pork flavor really shined through and was robustly accented with the parsley/pine nut gremolata. The accompanying gnocchi alla romana (a bread like large gnocchi with a similar flavor to polenta) and shaved brussel sprouts were good contrasts in texture to the pork and made for a hearty dish.
I also sampled the skirt steak, which was served medium rare with baby carrots, fingerlings and salsa verde. The steak was incredibly tender and brimming with flavor, which made me think it was sous vide – another tasty dish showcasing modern cooking techniques.
The fifth and final course included with the chefs tasting menu was dessert, which was tiramisu this evening. It was a deconstructed rendering that suffered from the cake part being a bit too dry and lacking a sauce of sorts to tie the whole thing together. I know with deconstructed dishes you’re supposed to take a fork of each component together to get the resemblance of the constructed version of the dish, but unfortunately that didn’t entirely come through here.
Dessert and cocktails aside, this was a very memorable meal. Each round of dishes packed a punch and in most cases made us very excited for the next dish. The company was also excellent and thankfully didn’t mind my obnoxious photography throughout the evening.
In summary, Brian Voltaggio has made his presence felt in his maiden voyage to the Baltimore restaurant scene – a welcome addition to the fine dining scene and a beacon of hope in Italian cuisine.