Aggio, the serenely pretty new restaurant at Power Plant Live, invites you to take a pleasure cruise through contemporary Italian cuisine. Your captain is Bryan Voltaggio, the genial chef who first gained national exposure as a contestant on "Top Chef."
If Voltaggio is not a name in your household, know that it is in those that follow dining news as entertainment. He is, to put it plainly, a celebrity chef.
But don't let that stop you. In culinary circles, Voltaggio is better known for his flagship restaurant Volt, which he opened in 2008 in his hometown of Frederick, and which continues to operate, six summers later, as a modernist dining mecca, the kind of place that diners plan their visits for months in advance.
Voltaggio has since launched, in and around Frederick and Washington, a few other concepts, including the contemporary diner Family Meal and the meat-focused farm-to-table restaurant Range. Volt remains the pilgrimage site, but the other restaurants give diners, to varying degrees, a glance into Voltaggio's technique and style.
For his Baltimore debut, Voltaggio has chosen to reproduce another of those second-generation concepts, namely, Aggio, a contemporary Italian restaurant that opened this year on Valentine's Day in Washington's Chevy Chase Pavilion, where it shares a space with Range.
The Baltimore edition of Aggio is in the Water Street restaurant space that has been home to Blue Sea Grill, and, more recently, Tatu. The property is technically part of the Power Plant Live entertainment complex, but Aggio sits just off the main party plaza, and the restaurant's atmosphere is upbeat but quiet.
There were puzzling moments during a long, pleasurable dinner at Aggio, and the occasional outright disappointment. But the highs at Aggio, which had been open for three weeks when I visited, were spectacularly high.
There was a Caesar salad, with fried oysters in the place of croutons, and shavings of smoked scallop standing in for anchovy, that should be carried around the streets of Baltimore in triumph. The mix of greens — crunchy pale romaine hearts and sinuous strips of earthy collards and kale — is beautiful to see and a pleasure to devour.
There are two pasta dishes, one featuring an oxtail ragu, the second showcasing Maryland blue crab, that grab you by the collar. Listed on the menu, respectively, as strozzapreti and tonnarelli nero, they are both insanely delicious and deeply interesting. You want to know all about them, and you want to tell your friends about them — about the subtle but insistent notes of bitter chocolate and cara cara orange in the ragu, and the sheer beauty of white crab meat nestling in strands of black pasta.
These are things to love. And there are more of them — an arrestingly pretty appetizer of burrata, a fresh cheese made with mozzarella and cream, that Voltaggio folds with sweet peaches, salsa verde and slivers of marinated sardine, and a composed salad of charred octopus with hazelnuts and smoked raisins, flavored with agrumato, a lemon-infused olive oil.
Then there are those dishes that leave you hanging. They're craftsman-like, blameless achievements, but you want something more from the feather-light ricotta gnocchi dish than the flavor of pancetta and Parmesan. The sheets of homemade pasta in a brick of lasagna are impossibly thin — how does the brick stay standing? — but the lamb Bolognese in between the layers wants a jolt of something. The meatballs, served with hand-cranked chitarra pasta, are just meatballs.
These dishes come and go, and there's nothing wrong with them, but they're not what you've shown up expecting.
If there's a larger concern, it's with the entrees. We tried three of the six listed on the menu when we visited — the menu changes frequently — and loved none of them wholly, and especially not at thirty-some bucks each. We liked best a juicy pan-fried chicken, and especially its mushroom and Vidalia onion ragu, but it was overly salted. Hickory-wood grilled leeks and red-wine infused farro were good, lovely ideas for halibut, but the halibut was a snooze. We got nothing from it.
The aged strip steak was neither flavorful nor interesting. The steak also shows up as one of the six courses on Aggio's $95 tasting menu, which, even if the steak were amazing, strikes me as odd. Diners willing to commit to a tasting menu aren't looking for steak.
I went twice to Aggio. The first visit I sat in the pretty, minimally decorated white-tablecloth dining room, which is in the hands of an enthusiastic and well-trained staff. We had particularly good advice on how to structure a meal from Aggio's menu of antipasti, salads, pasta and main courses.
The second visit, I sat up front, at the bar, where there is a row of unclothed tables, and which has a feeling more like a trattoria, where you might sip a cocktail, drink a glass of wine, and share, say, a Caesar salad, the strozzapreti and the tonnarelli nero.
You can see the food better up front, and you'll want to. The tuna crudo, which we barely noticed on our dining-room table a few nights earlier, revealed itself fully under brighter lights. And how pretty, the arrangement of reds, oranges and greens — tuna, pistachio, blood orange sections and the thinnest slices or radish you ever saw.
Then cap it all off with Aggio's version of the affogato, an Italian meal-ender that immerses vanilla ice cream in an espresso bath. Well, usually it's vanilla — at Aggio, it's salted caramel, and the glass is topped with a paper-thin cookie, into which an irregular hole has been punched. That's where the espresso is poured.
That made us inclined to love Aggio, which we want to do.
Where: 614 Water St., downtown
Contact: 410-528-0200, volt-aggio.com
Open: 5 p.m. to close, Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers: $12-$15; entrees: $29-$36
Food: Contemporary Italian food
Service: Enthusiastic and well-informed
Parking: Paid valet parking is available as are nearby garages
Children: There is no children's menu.
Special diets: The staff is prepared to make suggestions for diners with food allergies and restricted diets
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in most dining areas. There are no televisions
[Star key: Superlative:5 ; Excellent:4 ; Very Good: 3 ; Good: 2; Promising: 1 ]