Welcome to One Weekend In, where we check in on a restaurants first few days of service. Here, Eater talks to Bryan Voltaggio about the first few days at Aggio.
It was quite the weekend for chef Bryan Voltaggio. Not only was it opening weekend for Aggio, the restaurant he'd been quietly working to open within Range's back room space — it was also Valentine's Day weekend. Plus, news broke that there would be not one, but two Aggios opening up in the area; a second is bound for Baltimore.
Aggio spoke to Eater about the new restaurant, the hectic first few days and what to expect from the expansion. It turns out customers are willing to take a gamble on their Valentine's Day dinner and visit a brand new restaurant — at least, when Voltaggio's name is attached.
So how long had you been thinking about the idea for Aggio before it came about?
For quite some time, I had been thinking about doing an Italian-American concept, but I didn't really have a home or idea for a place for it. I started looking at some properties in D.C.. At about the same time I had been looking at Range and what we've done there. I always knew I was unhappy with the finishes in the back room back space, and had plans to renovate it at some point to make it look better and more inviting. And I had always built the kitchen at Range to do more, whether it be testing new concepts or more projects or whatever. It just kind of clicked — we have 80 seats back here, we can turn it into a secondary concept.
I was scared at first. I definitely know plenty of hotels and casinos that have adjacent restaurants in one space. I haven't seen too many that are literally restaurants within restaurants. And you know there's Table 21 versus the Volt experience [at Volt], and Minibar used to be within Cafe Atlantico. So it wasn't a stretch of the imagination, but having a whole 80-seat concept within the restaurant, I was a little nervous about that. But I brought in some designers, and we really felt we could make it into an intimate space, so we said, let's go for it. We closed the back room and turned it around in nine days.
Nine days? That's crazy.
Well, a lot of it was finishes - new paints, new wallpaper, new lighting fixtures. We reupholstered some of the banquettes. The layout of the space was fine, it was just the look and feel of the space. I also made some renovations to the kitchen, spent some money moving some equipment around to accommodate the new concept so it literally has its own kitchen, its own pass. And we're only open for five days [at Aggio], Wednesday through Sunday. So the goal was to focus on those five services. Range can still use the private space on off nights. I wanted the menu to be its own thing, and for Range to be its own thing. When we open in Baltimore, obviously we won't have the [resources of Range], so it really has to be a separate restaurant. If I had an opportunity to do a separate entrance, I would have done it.
When did the idea of having the Baltimore Aggio come into play?
We're always looking at new spaces, new opportunities. This will be the first time I have two concepts of the same name. But I just felt when we looked at the space, that what we had already planned for Aggio fit well with the space. I think either could have preceded the other and it wouldn't have been a big deal. A lot of what I do is born out of what I feel there is a need for in the area, or what works in a space. I thought, "this feels like a diner" with the Family Meal space. And we needed a family style restaurant with plenty of parking. In Baltimore, the space is a little close to Little Italy. In terms of the menu mix, and what restaurants were already there, there's a Ruth's Chris three doors down, and Range is meat centric so it would have been cannibalistic to open up another Range. And it's a two level space with a lot of neat features. One back room is all brick and I feel like I could put a fake door there. It just felt like an Italian restaurant, even though it's now an Asian Bistro, so how you get that out of that I don't know.
How similar will the Baltimore and DC Aggios be?
I feel like the decor will be very similar. The menu will certainly be similar. Anything that becomes a signature staple that people really enjoy will be on both menus. But I want to have some differences so that each place has its own identity. This will be the first time I have two menus of the same concept so this is new territory for me. But working for former employers, I understand how that menu mix works, and that if a chef de cuisine opens his own kitchen, he'll have his own ideas. Everything passes my palate first, but if the chef in Baltimore has great idea and wants to roll with it? By all means.
How much of the menu did you feel like you had ready when you opened Friday, and what are some of the menu highlights?
I definitely felt like I had a core menu and structure set up. I truly feel this cuisine, in comparison to Volt, is extremely seasonal. Italian cuisine is very much based on respect for ingredients. We've stayed true to that with this menu. I spent a lot of time — weeks on end — working on pasta recipes, looking for the right chew, the right textures. We feel like we've hit a home run. I'm really excited about some of the simplest things. We're doing a lamb ragu where I've taken the shoulder cut of lamb and made a really good, base pomodoro sauce. We also render the aged lamb fat and put that into it. We roast the lamb grind so that it develops a really good lamb flavor. It feels like eating a leg of lamb when you eat this pasta. It's very lamb-forward, one of the tastiest dishes. We also hot smoke pecorino and shave that on top of pasta, and that adds a whole level of smokiness to the dish. Another thing we're doing that's fun is that we'll mimic a classic dish. I have a beet dish with roasted beets with salt in a tonnato sauce. Veal in tonnato sauce is a very classic Italian dish, and the beets are cooked in a certain way that mimics the chew of meat. I don't say that in a way to make it sound disgusting — I mean there's some texture to it. It's simple, but the flavors go well together.
What was it about Italian cuisine that made you want to go there next?
I fell in love with making pasta again when I got to know some people making extruders. I explored that a lot at Volt with our pasta section, and Range had a pasta menu. We've now taken that element out of the Range menu to focus on it at Aggio.
There's just so much to explore; we're not just talking about it being pasta and sauce. There's that beet dish, serving those kind of things in a new way is fun for me.
And obviously I'm Italian by descent - my last name's Voltaggio. And so many Italians immigrated here and brought us this cuisine that there's another entire Italian American cuisine that would never ben found on the shores of Italy. I'm trying to work with that. For example, I'm not using Parmigiano-Reggiano all the time. We have it, and we use it, of course, it's a great cheese. But I found a really great producer doing a parmesan-style cheese. So we're using some domestic ingredients: domestic olive olive oils, vinegars, flours to make the pasta. I'm trying to find the kind of domestic ingredients that an immigrant who couldn't import ingredients from Italy would use. That is the thought process.
You didn't do much of any publicity about the restaurant, and you opened on Valentine's Day. Did you find enough people who were willing to take the gamble on the first service, not knowing much about it, on that weekend?
The first three nights, we capped the reservations. But we did close to 70 covers out of 80 seats on all three nights. We felt it was manageable to create a really great experience, and we paid close attention to the needs of the diners. There's always something that's going to go awry. Our P.O.S. system [used to keep track of orders] wasn't jiving how we wanted it to. We were able to fix it, but we had a couple of long ticket times. I don't think it ruined anyone's night. Hopefully on Valentine's Day people actually want to spend some time with their significant other [laughs]. On Day 2 that issue was rectified and it was very smooth. On Day 3 I was extraordinarily happy with where we were. We'll continue to open up more reservations but we don't want to pack it full.
It's more of a single diner experience; it's not shared plates. But on Sunday, some people requested the plates come out with share plates. If you go into any Italian family's Sunday night dinner, it's pass the plate time, with bowls of this and bowls of that. So I thought it was interesting that diners were requesting more of that on Sunday. I thought it was pretty cool, actually.
Was there a dish that customers seemed particularly happy with opening weekend?
One thing we're doing that's kind of fun and playful is that the first thing diners get when they sit down is a parmesan funnel cake. We basically dehydrate parmesan cheese and grind it down and that acts as the powdered sugar. It's salty and crispy and has a sort of playfulness while still being respectful. I think that kind of sums up the restaurant.
What was the clientele mix like the first weekend? Fans of your other restaurants and neighborhood people?
I think it was a mix of both. I didn't want to change the number so when people call Range, the person introduces both concepts and ask which the customer prefers (you can also make reservations online). In the last week or so, I think there were some people that were already going to make reservations at Range for Valentine's Day and then got excited about the new idea, and were intrigued by it. Some were neighbors, and we had some friends and family come in who wanted to be there first. My partner Hilda [Staples] came in the first night. It was a good blend.
What's left to do now?
I'm going down there today to do some prep for Wednesday, make some changes to the menu. I think we had five pasta dishes, and there are about 20 I want to do. The person working that station would kill me. But we have a lot of ideas, and want to take some time with each one. I'll be spending some time there and also working on helping along some chef changes at Range. Even though there's been 20 inches of snow, I'm thinking towards spring. I've got Lunchbox very much on my plate. I think we'll be going under construction the first week of April. Simultaneously as I'm talking to you I'm driving down to Baltimore because we just took possession of this new restaurant. So I'm going to be meeting with people on that. It will be a very busy spring. I'll have another chef joining us in March so that [Aggio chef de cuisine] Johnny Miele will be mobile to open Aggio in Baltimore.
How much sleep have you had the past couple of nights?
You know, fortunately, during that whole thing it did snow, so I stayed in a hotel one night. The first night I made it home, but the second night I just didn't know what other people were going to do. There could have been a back up on 270 and taken my five hours to get in. I didn't have that kind of time, so I stayed in a hotel. So I got a little bit of sleep that night and that was ok. I think a lot of people think, 'Oh, it's easy, you're opening up in an old space.' But there are some new cooks, new people involved, a new space, a new service team. It was a real restaurant opening. There were some things here and there — the POS system problems, and we had to have some menus printed last minute. But things happen, and I'm really proud of where we are now.
Anything else you think is important to mention?
I think some people were confused and thinking it was a pop-up. Some of the news that came out about Baltimore was a little premature. We wanted DC to have its spotlight moment. But it was confusing to people at first. I was very quiet about it even leading up to the opening, with my staff. People were like "Is this a test run for Baltimore?" No no no, we're staying here. I wanted people to come in and experience it. I didn't want to announce a bunch of stuff and have people come in with preconceived notions. I wanted them to come in and enjoy the restaurant.
Update: Voltaggio reached out to Eater following the interview's publication. He said he neglected to emphasize how much his entire team was involved with the process of putting Aggio together, from the wine list to the decor to getting the space ready. "Their patience was extraordinary...they deserve all the accolades," he said.
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