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In Little Italy, a showcase for exquisite dining

I've never thought Aldo's gets the attention it deserves. Some of that has to do with the firm opinions Baltimoreans form about restaurants they've never been to, especially when those restaurants happen to be in Little Italy.

Aldo's is not just a pretty good restaurant, all things considered. It's a great one, everything considered.

Aldo's was never a stuffy temple of fine dining, its formally dressed waiters and opulent setting notwithstanding. People have always enjoyed themselves at Aldo's. Wine flows, and so does laughter. As with most great restaurants, Aldo's never asks you to love it or admire it. Aldo's just wants you to have a wonderful dinner.

If it's been a while since you've been, you should know that the menu has been redesigned and somewhat streamlined. Pastas now have a more prominent place, and it's easier these days to make a pasta dish into a main course. The pastas, though, are still available in half-portions, so you could have them as an intermediate course, after the appetizers and before the entrees. (Most of the pastas are also available in tasting portions — $15 for a pasta duo, or $23 for a pasta trio.)

Either way, do not leave without trying a pasta dish. Try the orecchiette, an Aldo's classic, a savory dish of fresh pasta, broccoli rabe, homemade Italian sausage and Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's the kind of deceptively simple thing you could see yourself making — every night of your life — and never get quite right.

We go to good restaurants for things like this, and for the linguine with clams, which is an example of a right way of doing things — the clams are fresh but pulled from their shells and tossed with olive oil and seasoning. And especially we go for a new thing, like the just-introduced ravioli Piedmontese, firm pillows stuffed with rosemary coppa and tossed with Parmesan and tossed with pea tendrils, smoked speck and a puree of English peas. This was a startling little dish, with strong and surprising flavors.

There are moments at Aldo's when you think, oh, thank you. A fresh and aromatic minestrone is filled with squash and diced potatoes and herbs from owner Aldo Vitale's own garden. An eggplant Parmigiana tower is constructed from crispy slices of flash-fried eggplant, a zesty tomato sauce and the right amount of mozzarella cheese. Everything is marvelous in an appetizer of brown-sugar glazed pork belly, whose sweetness is set off with Swiss chard, a tomato jam and, best of all, a cannellini bean puree.

That pork belly is about as complicated as Aldo's food gets, at least on the surface. The main courses especially are as clear as day. When we visited, the kitchen was offering a branzino, the European seabass, stuffing it with rosemary and oregano, coating it with lemon, garlic and olive oil and grilling it whole. It arrived moist, flaky and delicious. Aldo's treats an old standard like veal tenderloin Francese with respect, battering it lightly, frying it cleanly and serving it with pretty wilted spinach and a terrific lemon-Chardonnay sauce.

Over the years, something of a cult has formed around Aldo's Tournedos Rossini, a grilled prime filet mignon, seared foie gras and a risotto of black truffles and porcini mushroom sauce. It's a wonder. But consider the double-cut Wisconsin veal chop, prepared Milanese style — butterflied, pounded, breaded and pan-fried golden brown and served with fresh arugula and chopped garden tomatoes. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing, this veal chop, and it tastes like your ship has come in.

Do you, after all of this, have to get dessert? Yes, you have to. The napoleon looks so daunting and big, but hidden in the layers of Bavarian cream are dark and sour Amarena cherries. Likewise, the bracing effect of berries spiked with grappa undercuts the richness of buttermilk panna cotta. When we visited, Aldo's was just trying out a new dessert — cornetti, an Italian version of croissants, flavored with Nutella and ready for dunking in an affogato, a gelato served in a broth of espresso and Sambuca.

The Vitale family are good hosts. It always helps when a clientele is largely self-selecting. You're in good company here. Aldo's isn't a good fit for the dull of soul. Yes, it's expensive, but diners who appreciate and recognize high-quality food will never regret a penny, or a minute, spent here.


Aldo's Ristorante Italiano

Rating: 4.5 stars

Where: 306 S. High St., Little Italy

Contact: 410-727-0700, http://www.aldositaly.com

Open: Daily for dinner

Prices: Appetizers $8-$24; entrees $20-$46

Food: Regional Italian fare with a focus on fresh ingredients

Service: Professional but not stuffy, with good advice

Best dishes: Orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe and homemade sausage, Milanese-style veal chop, linguine with fresh clams

Parking: $10 valet parking in addition to on-street parking and nearby lots

Noise level: Normal conversation is extremely comfortable; a television in the front lounge is set to no volume

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars ; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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