All words: Svetlana Legetic
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
It has been just over a month since Bryan Voltaggio (following a stream of coy-ish tweets and a teaser meatball (!) making video) opened the doors to Aggio, his new Italian concept in DC (there will be one opening in Baltimore too, come late spring). So, we stopped by for a meal and some photos, so you know what to expect (and what not to expect).
It is impossible to not talk about Aggio without considering the context of both the name and the location. With Volt occupying the front, more precise sounding part of Voltaggio, this dining experience is, on the naming strategy alone, meant to obviously be a celebration of the Italian side of chef’s heritage, and as such, warmer, more welcoming. It is also actually a restaurant WITHIN a restaurant, settled in the previous private dining room area of Range, and while the whole experience is not confusing if you know what you’re doing and where you’re going (Aggio has its own host, but you CAN check in/ask for directions at the Range host station too) the attitudes of the two places are very different.
And while Range boasts a brightly lit, open plan, and a cavalcade (no other word for it, really) of small plates and relatively casual (while still upscale) experience, the vibes at Aggio are sleeker, more dim, and yes, more formal (But also, dare we say, more sexy? Was it the lighting? It is probably the lighting. It is ALWAYS the lighting). It is a white table cloth restaurant in every sense of the word – from the actual color of the table cloths to the quality of service to the food itself. Sure, this is Italian, but not rustic or casual in any way, so come prepared. This is seal-the-deal date Italian, impress-your-visiting-parents Italian, gorgeously complex, sophisticated Italian. And it stays that way even when they encourage you to “use your hands” (which they will, on a few well meaning occasions, starting with the cheesy, funnel-cake inspired amuse bouche which greets you within moments of arrival)
The menu (overseen by Voltaggio and manned by Chef de Cucina Johnny Miele) clearly takes pride in a few things and those are pastas and their meat preparation methods. There are six hand rolled pastas on the menu, and they range from radiatori in vodka sauce to more esotheric sounding ravioli del plin (with English peas and pistacchio milk) but we ducked into the Lamb Ragu first, because, well, because if we need to explain that decision then ….
The pasta itself is whole wheat and made with tomato concentrate, which adds a certain cohesiveness to the dish you maybe don’t quite anticipate and the lamb is pure Shenandoah valley bliss, with some oak aged pecorino on top. The wine pairing for this Lacryma Cristi de Vesuvio literally translates to “Christ’s tears of Vesuvio” and ties perfectly to the pasta church Voltaggio is building here.
But, you may probably want to start with something a little lighter (I know, I know). At this point you probably think beets are as ubiquitous as potatoes but Aggio’s Chioggia beet salad treats the root vegetable with a light, refreshingly (and deceptively) simple hand. No heavy cheeses or other distractions in sight. Just a simple salt crust, and the a tonnato sauce (maine with yellow fin tuna and bonito oil) and a little grated bottarga and olive oil on to. Pair this with the Bagna Cauda (another “use your hands” dish) which does the (for me previously unthinkable feat) of pairing celery and sardines in a way that wants you to ask for seconds.
Before you dive into the meats, consider the fish too. The halibut is wonderful (and features sunchokes heavily, which is always a plus in the BYT dining book) and the lentils and octopus (charred over a wood fire) and calamari (lightly poached in saltwater) combination is just the right amount of earthy (and goes beautifully with a Verdiccio di Matelica).
On the meat side, we went straight for the beef cheek (which is a meat cut we’ve been enjoying quite a bit of late), slow brazed and sitting prettily on top of a farro nest (cooked with saffron tea) and a bone marrow custard that gives both bone marrow and custards a good name. While most other dishes on the menu are very simple and focused, this one, with its glazed turnips, garlic chips, flower honey on top of all the elements we just described had the potential of taking a turn for the muddled, and yet emerges confidently out of the meandering woods and is probably one of the most memorable dishes we’ve had in a while.
On a more seemingly straightforward meat tip, the Berkshire Pork (on top of a buckwheat polenta which I am sure Stephanie, our photographer, is dreaming of as I type this) and the Pork Belly were both lovely as well.
If all this sounds great, and decisions seem impossible (which is acceptable), you may be happy to find out that for those particularly special (or gluttonous) occasions, there IS a tasting menu option (6 courses for $95, with a wine pairing (done by sommelier Kathy Morgan’s team) an additional $65) but the a la carte experience ranges from $12 for smaller plates to $33 for the most expensive of entrees.
The staff is the right balance of knowledgeable, caring and “leave you alone when you need to be left alone” aware, but don’t be afraid to ask for help with those decisions if you need help. Unlike some other truly fine dining experiences, while the food is very sophisticated, the service profile is warm, even when your napkins are being refolded.
The desserts and cocktails however, are worth leaving room for.
RANGE runs a well regarded chocolate shop up front and a selection of those is always welcome (the salted caramel and the spicy dark chocolate being our very rich favorites)
but we fell pretty hard for the pistachio in olives cake with sorbet juice and a batch of fresh citrus surrounding it, from blood oranges to kumquats PRESERVED in blood oranges and tiny merengues which make for great dessert Patch Adams instagrams when stuck to your nose (something you may be tempted to do, and while we’re not going to post any of those photos here, we can assure you we won’t judge that decision).
And then, as you gently roll yourself out of the restaurant, remember to file this under “places you want to come back to so you can try more things”, because you should. In a Italian restaurant renaissance DC is having, it is lovely to see some great fine dining options finally joining the ranks of Fiola in the category. It is still early days for Aggio, but it will be interesting to see where this team takes the menu as seasons and inspirations change, because if one thing is clear – the one thing they have in spades is creativity.
Aggio is located at 5335 Wisconsin Ave (right on the Friendship Heights metro). Visit volt-aggio.com for more details and reservations.