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Now, this is Italian cuisine

Dining and DrinkingRestaurantsBryan VoltaggioVolt

Hey, Baltimore, in the mood for Italian tonight? How about a nice veal piccata or chicken Parmigiana with a side of linguine?

Forget about it.

Instead, we're having pork cheeks with celeriac puree and pea shoots, a local melon salad with peaches, red onions and brioche croutons, and spinach tagliatelle tossed with blue crab meat and ... buttered popcorn.

Welcome to the new Italian dining landscape.

Of course you can still find the classics in Baltimore, both in and out of Little Italy. But Baltimore is seeing a new kind of Italian restaurant. Some of these new places, like Bottega — Adrien Aeschilman's white-hot micro restaurant in the Charles North neighborhood — are not obviously Italian restaurants at all.

Bottega's reclaimed barn wood and jars of preserves evoke farm-to-table more than trattoria, and the weekly changing chalkboard menu lists items like duck breast with blueberries and fish peppers and stuffed rabbit with black-eyed peas.

"A lot of people ask us if this is Italian," said Aeschilman, whose family vacationed in Italy every summer when he was a teenager. "It's Italian because that's what I grew up cooking, it's my background. I cook what I know, and therefore I consider it Italian."

This new take on what "Italian" means is happening not just in Baltimore but across the country, said Izabela Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation, a New York City nonprofit that celebrates America's culinary heritage.

"This a whole new kind of Italian-American cuisine. I'd call it American-Italian." Wojcik said. "It's very much a product of the current way that chefs are cooking."

Besides Bottega, other new Italians include Aggio, the stylish new restaurant from the nationally regarded chef Bryan Voltaggio, and Pazo, the formerly Spanish but now Italian restaurant from the Foreman Wolf restaurant group.

Others are Hersh's, a South Baltimore bar where the small-plate menu is inspired by the fry shops of Rome, and Birroteca, a "modern, rustic Italian" tavern where one of the specialties is the Locavore, a Neapolitan pizza topped with market-fresh vegetables.

The biggest influence on the new Italian restaurant is the farm-to-table movement, with its emphasis on local sourcing, regional traditions and simplicity.

This is what true Italian dining is all about, said Aeschilman. "We would always comment on how good the food was in Italy, and it was really because they were using fresh ingredients. It wasn't a huge repertoire of food. People did pastas really well, they did very simple cuts of meat with a few ingredients."

That dining philosophy shows up on Bottega's menu, which typically lists about a dozen items total — a few appetizers and pastas, four main dishes, and one or two desserts. Almost everything is scrupulously sourced, and Aeschilman has cultivated relationships with local purveyors, even occasionally traveling to area farms to pick crops himself for his menu.

It's not surprising that Italian dining and locally sourced dining are starting to converge, said Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, which conducts annual surveys of American chefs to track dining trends.

For starters, Italian is the longtime favorite among table-service menus in the United States, she said. But local sourcing, the essential component of farm-to-table dining, is at the front of diners' minds.

"Locally sourced meat, seafood and produce are our No. 1 and 2 hot table-service trends for 2014," Fernandez said. "Local sourcing has stayed in the top 20 for the past five years, making this a true trend rather than a passing fad for table-service concepts."

If the main influence on the new Italian restaurant is farm-to-table, the second is the public's interest in chef-driven cuisine.

Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation said Italian cuisine provides the ideal framework for enterprising chefs.

Restaurants are "trying to build their business as gathering places where there's an appreciation of the craft that happens in the kitchen," Wojcik said. Italian cuisine "never gets old because there are so many interpretations."

Voltaggio, who came to national prominence as a contestant on "Top Chef," said that diners who come to Aggio looking for culinary fireworks won't be disappointed.

The food at Aggio absolutely bears the inventive beauty and visual drama that diners look for at chef-driven restaurants like Volt, his flagship restaurant in Frederick. But Voltaggio said people will still recognize Aggio as Italian, and he's not interested in confounding their expectations.

Wojcik said what Voltaggio is attempting at Aggio is what chefs are doing all over America, and not just with Italian food.

It's all about the personal stamp, she said.

"It's not seeking authenticity," Wojcik said, "but instead using authentic flavors as an influence. I think it's wholly American to do this."

And Aggio is also thinking locally when it comes to the menu.

Instead of basing the menu on a particular region of Italy, Aggio will take its cues from the Mid-Atlantic region.

The minestrone at Aggio is not what you'd find at an Italian restaurant in Italy; it has blue crab with roasted shellfish, ridged spaghetti and is garnished with a crispy chickpea flatbread called scoca. Eventually, Voltaggio said, he wants to get Aggio's tomatoes from the Mid-Atlantic region instead of importing San Marzano tomatoes from Italy.

"It's OK to break with tradition as long as you have respect for the original," Voltaggio said.

How far can Italian dining go before it stops feeling Italian to diners?

Aeschilman said that a few diners have been openly annoyed that Bottega's food isn't more Italian.

"We've suffered a little bit by being [labeled as] Italian," he said. "We've had people [angry] that we don't have what they expect, but the majority of people get it," he said.

At Pazo, which recently changed its menu from Spanish to Italian, executive chef Julian Marucci is relying on his experience at another (Italian) Foreman Wolf restaurant, Cinghiale, to help him know how far to take Pazo's southern Italian-influenced cuisine.

Pazo and Cinghiale both set out to make authentic versions of Italian dishes, but their food is from regions that are less familiar to American diners. At Cinghiale, where the menu is inspired by cuisines from central and northern Italy, diners sometimes rebelled when a dish didn't resemble the Americanized version they were accustomed to.

"Risotto should have a nice surrounding liquid; it should be cooked al dente," Marucci said, but some diners thought the risotto was cooked improperly because the liquid hadn't been absorbed. "The risotto would always come back to the kitchen because it was undercooked,"

Eventually, diners caught on. "A couple months in, we were fine," Marucci said.

Back at Bottega, Aeschilman said that he has an answer for diners who ask whether his is really an Italian restaurant:

"We're just trying to make food we want to eat."

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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