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If Aggio seems too fancy, just sit at the bar

I had the wrong idea about Aggio, and maybe you do, too.

Opened in February 2014, the first Baltimore restaurant from celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio — a Frederick native and "Top Chef" alum — didn't draw me in on the surface. Maybe the "fine dining" label and Power Plant Live location didn't seem like the ideal setup for a lowkey night out. Something about Aggio's fancy vibes in a tourist area drained any urgency I felt to visit.

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On a recent Thursday evening, however, Aggio rendered my preconceived notions useless in an enjoyable and surprisingly approachable experience. The fact that it was reasonably priced — and that I felt comfortable in jeans and an untucked shirt — only solidified the appeal.

Like all good Italian restaurants, Aggio's food and drink should be tasted together, and I am happy to report my total bill was $63.50, including tax but not tip. That's not cheap, but it seemed plenty fair. If you had previously ruled Aggio out, assuming a hefty bill was unavoidable, think again.

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First, I chose the lower floor's L-shaped bar — a naturally more laidback setting — instead of a table. While the sounds of a private holiday party could be heard coming from the fancier upstairs, the mostly empty bar made it easy to chat with the informative and friendly head bartender, Amie Ward, who always had a suggestion or an answer to a question.

The night began with a selection from Aggio's cocktail list. The 11 offerings, all priced at $11, include popular choices with memorable names like the Bloodlust Swizzle (Papa's Pilar Dark and Blonde rums, housemade Falernum sweet syrup, blood orange juice, Bitterman's habanero shrub and a pinch of salt) and the Carried Away (Beefeater gin, Combier Kummel liqueur, cinnamon simple syrup, lemon, muddled Granny Smith apples and bitters).

As a sucker for cherry anything, I opted for a Weeping Cherry, whose striking, deep burgundy color fit the title perfectly. The ingredient list showed potential to be sugary sweet: Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye whiskey, housemade cherry cordial, white port and orange and cherry bitters. The execution was well designed and flavorful, though, with the rye and cherry cordial finding a sublime balance between the whiskey's spiciness and the cordial's sweetness. The garnish — a Luxardo cherry rolled in citric acid — tasted like an elegant Warhead candy.

My cocktail set the night in motion and worked fine with my Caesar salad ($12). The true harmony came after, when Ward wonderfully paired my pasta dish (the tonnarelli nero, ordered here as a half serving for $15 but available as a full order for $29 as well) with a 2014 Santadi "Villa Solais" Vermentino di Sardegna ($11), a bright white wine whose citrus notes counteracted the pasta's subtle heat from jalapenos.

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As dinner was cleared, I was more than satisfied. When I tallied the total in my head — less than $50 for salad, pasta, a cocktail and a glass of wine, along with complimentary bread service and an amuse-bouche — mere satisfaction gave way to delight.

Ward, who spent years learning her craft behind the bar at Bad Decisions in Fells Point, suggested an amaro flight ($11) instead of traditional dessert. The herbal liqueur from Italy has a reputation for being jarringly bitter, but Ward said that was a misconception. Her knowledge and enthusiasm for amaro was clear, so, as a novice, I had her choose three brands that would serve as easy introductions to the digestif.

I tasted the trio — Meletti Amaro, Amaro Lucano and Nardini Amaro — in that order. (In a nice touch, Ward left the bottles behind the flight glasses for further inspection.) The smooth Meletti smelled like violets, the Lucano finished on a sweet, almost biscotti-like note and the Nardini, with the anise flavor I expected, tasted most bold. She had more adventurous brands behind the bar, but Ward knew constructing a pleasant introduction mattered most.

This thoughtful and consistent service made Aggio more than just a fancy bowl of pasta and a glass of wine. A gregarious host, Ward dispelled any concerns that Aggio would feel uptight, while her familiarity with the bar program and ability to present it in layman's terms made the experience feel special.

My initial idea of Aggio wasn't completely off base. But after visiting the bar, it was also obvious Aggio does not belong in a box. I ate and drank very well and learned new things along the way, all while not regretting the price I paid for it. My only regret was not doing so sooner.

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