For 20 years, Baltimoreans have been known to have a quick, short reply when asked to recommend a really good Italian restaurant: Aldo’s. No wonder.
On a recent, misty evening, this Little Italy mainstay — Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano, to use the formal name — greatly impressed with its impeccable food, tuxedoed servers, classy piano jazz on the sound system, and appetite-stirring ambiance.
Mind you, I would have enjoyed even more of that ambiance if we could have sat in the airy, multistory, Italian palazzo-like central dining room, but that was set up for couples. Our side alcove still looked quietly elegant, but felt a little cramped when it filled up.
In a country where ostensibly Italian cooking often means squishy pasta drowned in a sea of nondescript tomato sauce, it is always a pleasure encountering the real thing. Aldo’s might not be the only one in town serving the taste of authenticity, but it’s surely in the upper echelon.
Just the fact that all of our pasta dishes arrived piping hot, as if they had just been cooked tableside, was a sign of keen attention to detail. And that the actual pasta in each of those dishes arrived at a perfect al dente texture proved all the more impressive. (Many a kitchen lets dishes linger, so the pasta essentially cooks more before ever reaching the expectant diner.)
Refined flavors provided another layer of contentment as our meal progressed. For that matter, we were feeling awfully good even before we plunged into the dinner proper, thanks to nothing fancier than a loaf of bread of downright poetic rusticity.
That baked gem was followed by a rewarding first course, so rewarding we would have felt well-rewarded if there hadn’t been a second and third.
The truffled cream of asparagus soup managed to keep the richness nicely understated, even with the presence of whipped burrata and sauteed mushrooms.
Extra-succulent shrimp scampi, perched on finely toasted bruschetta, was an indulgence we couldn’t stop indulging in — until we got to the wild mushroom risotto, with its earthy flavor and heavenly texture.
Our pasta course included a beautifully seasoned rigatoni alla vodka (the kitchen even specifies Stolichnaya as the vodka used), and a hearty dish of orecchiette, broccoli rabe and an Italian sausage that delivered a delectable jounce. A fettuccine dish, lightly bathed in a dreamy, creamy tomato sauce with cognac, featured ethereal lobster tail prepared using the sous-vide method.
The pasta addict in our party chose another one for an entree, which the rest of us ended up coveting — bucatini alla carbonara. More commonly encountered with spaghetti, the use of the thicker bucatini gave the dish a little extra body to go with the richness of the superbly blended cheese, egg yolk and pancetta. A very classy carbonara.
Veal francese made a filling main course. I would have preferred a little less generous layer of the tasty lemon-chardonnay sauce, which seemed eager to take attention away from the excellent tenderloin.
Despite my aversion to foie gras (usually produced by the force-feeding of birds, though a more humane method has been developed), I could not resist trying tournedos Rossini.
Anything named for Rossini, the great opera composer and equally accomplished gourmand, is going to be decadent. (He famously wept when, on a boating party, a truffled turkey fell into water before he could devour it.) Tournedos Rossini— filet mignon resting on toasted bread and topped with foie gras — has been a classic since the 19th century.
At Aldo’s, this is a signature dish, and rightly so. The beef proved exquisitely tender, the truffle-wild mushroom sauce deeply flavorful. And I won't deny that the foie gras (I had a tiny taste) added a voluptuous layer. Risotto packed in a little Parmesan basket added an ideal accompaniment.
Although we enjoyed our chianti and cabernet choices with the entrees, I was surprised at how few options we had — only six by the glass (just two of them Italian products), all $14. And the extensive, tempting list of bottles is too heavily weighted toward the high end in price.
Dessert seemed a bite too far, but we forced ourselves to enjoy a panna cotta of sublime smoothness, figuring we’d pace ourselves better during the next visit. And I hope the next visit will be soon.
Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano 4.5 stars
306 South High St., Little Italy
Prices: Appetizers $14 to $28; entrees $23 to $52
Ambiance: Elegant and inviting spaces, especially the central dining room evoking an Italian villa.
Service: Pleasant and mostly polished.
Parking: Valet, street, and garages
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]