It begins with a wisp of a breadstick shot through with fennel seed. Brittle and hard between your teeth, it shatters with just a little pressure, tasting like taralli, that chubby Italian pretzel-like snack, though this version is much more lithe and slender. Soon after, there's bread—a spongy, garlicky, two-inch-thick hunk of focaccia—and a plate with two small pastel mounds, one milk-white, the other soft pink, like an icing rosebud. White reveals itself to be whipped ricotta (half cow's milk, half sheep's milk, you're told) laced with the essence of lemon. Pink is salty, hammy, lush, the best mortadella you've ever had. Pureed into a paté, the pork is drizzled with pistachio oil, in an echo of the nuts that normally stud the sliced lunchmeat. You begin to get excited about what might follow.
Food is foreplay at Aggio (614 Water St.,  528-0200, volt-aggio.com), the first Baltimore venue of celebrity chef and Maryland native Bryan Voltaggio. This is the second incarnation of Aggio (the former "Top Chef" contestant opened Range and the first Aggio in the nation's capitol and still has his smash-hit Volt in Frederick), and like its Washington, D.C. cousin, the focus is Italian, visible in the amuses bouches above, the inventive pasta courses like strozzapreti with oxtail ragu, cara cara oranges, and bitter chocolate, and in its very user-friendly list of mostly Italian wines. That said, from the moment you enter the restaurant, it becomes obvious right away that Aggio bears little resemblance to Little Italy or your favorite neighborhood pasta joint. And why should it?
Located on Water Street near the Power Plant Live complex, Aggio is styled for casual drinks and food up front, serious dining in the back. Painted brick sets off the bar area just inside the entrance, but as you move further into the restaurant, the space evolves into a palette of cream and black and deep grays. Tables are draped in white cloths; chairs have white linen upholstery; banquettes wear blue velvet and black leather. The effect is meant to be clean and sophisticated, though it feels a little generic in a cool, hotel-lobby kind of way. The music—a mix of the softer side of indie acts like Spoon, Citizen Cope, and the Black Keys—doesn't feel quite right either, but maybe it's more of an issue of too-high volume on a night with fewer diners or trying to find that bridge between music for bar and dining room.
There are two dining options at Aggio: a six-course $95 tasting menu or the diner's choice of a la carte options of antipasti, soup and salads, pasta, seafood, and meat dishes which run between roughly $12-$36 per plate (the menu changes frequently and all of the dishes on the tasting menu are available in slightly larger portions a la carte). Our server recommended three to four dishes per person for our party of two if we ordered a la carte. Instead, we opted for the tasting menu plus two a la carte dishes. But she was right either way: It was enough food for us, and even better, most of it was very, very nice.
Favorites included the charred octopus, meaty, grilled to just the right consistency, and served atop a bed of toasty fregola, a Sardinian pasta our server described as being akin to Israeli couscous; halibut, also grilled on one side until crisp but not overdone, and served again with more grains, farro this time, and an intense, concentrated red wine reduction; and a bowl of homey meatballs ($18 a la carte), rich with beef, veal, and more mortadella. Tonnarelli nero, housemade squid ink pasta, boasts a wonderfully chewy texture which makes a good foil for the delicate (and super rich) sauce of crab, uni, and house-made seafood spice the kitchen playfully calls "our bay." Beet salad looks simple, but the smear of tonnato (tuna) sauce that covers the surface of the plate in a very thin film creates another layer of flavor and tempers the sweetness of the beets.
Less successful is the strip steak, the penultimate course of the tasting menu, which just seems a little boring compared to the other offerings. A dab of grilled, pureed eggplant had us guessing, but the steak itself was oddly tasteless. The same could be said for the pistachio oil cake, the last course of the tasting menu—it's small, dry, and without a lot of wow factor (two gratis chocolate-espresso truffles brought to the table at the end of the meal, however, were intense and fabulous). On the other side of the flavor spectrum are the prawns ($29 a la carte), a showoff-y dish of three large shrimp and polenta napped in a fra diavolo foam that melts into the polenta like porridge. It is a complex, tasty, and labor-intensive dish, but at $29 could use a few more shrimp to merit the price tag.
Aggio also creates an intriguing array of spirits, including a beet Sambuca and line of "cellos" in lemon, lime, grapefruit, and Satsuma orange. Its wine list is equally compelling, affordable, and arranged by style—a sort of drinks-similar-to setup of "if you like, say, pinot grigio, you might like these wines." It's a great and non-threatening way to introduce customers to new varietals as well as offer quality versions of familiar ones (the pinot grigios on offer include the gorgeous Jermann, as well as Lageder). There's also a sommelier on staff, as well as a bevy of knowledgeable servers who are all about making the diner comfortable. The folks at Aggio get hospitality. Servers are warm without being too familiar; explanatory without veering into lecture; helpful without being pushy. They know the wine list well and the menu even better. They are without a doubt an integral part of Aggio being a place to where you'd want to return.
Make no mistake, dining at Aggio is definitely an experience, rather than just a meal, and it is an experience you will pay for. Ordering on a budget is possible, but it would also be a challenge, and is probably not the ideal way to experience the restaurant. I don't often say that. I think, though, that Aggio offers the city something different and something worth trying. The food is lovely, often outstanding, and undeniably interesting. After only one visit, I'm looking forward to trying it again.
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.