Six years ago, when I reviewed Aldo's, a Little Italy newcomer, I complained that the decent but unexceptional food didn't live up to the pretty setting and graceful service. Now it does, under the direction of chef / owner Aldo Vitale, and "unexceptional" no longer describes it. But the improvement comes with a hefty price tag.
The small but carefully thought-out menu offers some Little Italy standards like fried calamari and veal saltimbocca. Ignore them. There is, after all, Vitale's agnolotti -- soft, half-moon egg-pasta pillows stuffed with porcini mushrooms and sauced with smooth-as-silk black truffle butter and shiitake mushrooms. At the first bite, a small shiver went down my spine.
The pasta is wonderful, but if you hated Italian food, you would still find plenty to love here. Such offerings as crab cakes and imperial-stuffed lobster will keep those tourists happy who want traditional Baltimore seafood dishes. There are grilled steaks and chops and Maine lobster bisque. Aldo's is not your typical Little Italy restaurant, if there is such a thing anymore.
The best dishes here are all about luxury: an embarrassment of black truffles, foie gras, filet mignon, lobster, heavy cream and first-rate olive oil -- pale spring-green and so fruity it was hard to stop sopping it up with the chewy bread. Aldo's has an artisanal cheese cave and a pricey but excellent wine list.
The soup of the day was a chowder overflowing with crab, shrimp, sweet corn, a token bit of diced potato and lots of cream. The confetti of red pepper provided sweet little bursts of flavor.
Carpaccio -- tissue-thin slices of raw beef with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano adding a salty counterpoint -- was elegantly arranged under a drizzle of aioli and capers, but it was the basil leaves that gave the dish a fresh, final flourish.
The kitchen marries foie gras with a cherry sauce -- a bit too much cherry sauce, actually, but the rich, sweet liver still makes a heart-stoppingly fine first course. I'm not sure it needs both the warm potato salad and the crisp toasts, but excess is the order of the day here.
Excess as in the signature dish, tournedos Rossini, with pink-centered filets, more foie gras, a wild mushroom sauce and black truffles. (This chef loves his black truffles.) In case this isn't enough luxury for you, the dish comes with an oozy, four-cheese risotto. Aldo's osso buco, tender and full-bodied, has a lovely, cozy simplicity next to this awesome creation; they are so different, it's hard to say that one is better than the other.
While there is seafood on the menu, it's the meat that's most memorable. Of course, we didn't try the crab cake, which the waiter recommended, or the lobster stuffed with imperial crab or the shrimp. But the zuppa di pesce alla Calabrese gave us a hint. It shows a delicacy some of the other dishes didn't, with plenty of mussels, clams, shrimp and grouper, but it somehow lacked the wow factor that even the homemade pasta had.
The only serious misstep was the grilled lamb rib chops, which I wouldn't have ordered if the waiter hadn't recommended them. There were certainly enough of them, but they were undercooked and underwhelming. Their garlic mashed potatoes were enticing, though, and they came with fat spears of spring asparagus.
Not to be missed is Aldo's cloudlike tiramisu, the best of the desserts we tried, with liquor taking a back seat to the more subtle flavors of espresso and cream. Desserts are a strong point, involving puff pastry, pastry cream and whipping cream. The lemon semifreddo is a good choice if you're looking for something tart and relatively light.
Aldo's is a comfortable restaurant, with lots of fabric to absorb sound, large tables for four and muted colors to soothe rather than jazz you up. I'm not, however, convinced that the satellite radio is a good idea. Vivaldi is fine to eat osso buco by, but when we got to Bach, it felt like church was about to start.
Address: 306 S. High St., Little Italy
Hours: Open for dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$15; entrees, $19-$45.
FOOD *** (3 STARS)
SERVICE *** (3 STARS)
ATMOSPHERE *** (3 STARS)