Young and Hungry

Behind Acqua al 2’s Florence-San Diego-DC Axis

The wood sign hanging above the doors of the new Acqua al 2 restaurant in Capitol Hill boasts an unusual geography for a trans-continental restaurant chain: Firenze, San Diego, Washington.

"It's not the normal expansion of a restaurant group," concedes chef-owner Ari Gejdenson of the Eastern Market-via-Il-Duomo-and-The-Murph trajectory.

Even at their expansionist heydays, neither the Hard Rock Café nor Planet Hollywood included that trifecta on their roster of cities — according at least to the oddly fascinating lists of locations maintained on the chains' respective Wikipedia pages here and here.

In Acqua's case, it is a matter less of global strategy than unusual personal peregrinations.  Gejdenson, who was raised on the Hill, moved to Florence to play Serie C soccer in 1999.  He eventually abandoned the sport and opened Ari's Diner, selling American-style brunch to tourists, expats and study-abroad kids.  Eventually, his culinary preferences went native, and he took a job down the street in the kitchen of  Acqua al 2, a trattoria that first opened in 1978.

In 2000, another Acqua chef, Martin Gonzalez, left Florence with permission to develop an outpost in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.  Last month Gejdenson followed Gonzalez's lead and opened in his own hometown.  The owners of the Florence restaurant, including a pair of siblings, are minority owners in the two American locations.

The three restaurants share identical menus, relying on very similar ingredients. (One small tweak: Gejdenson uses more celery in the base of sauces since the Italian stalks have stronger flavor.)  All have a similar "rustic-Tuscan" décor, as Gejdenson calls it, although in Washington he acknowledges that comes in a less impressive shell.  "Certainly we don't have the vaulted ceilings that the nice old buildings in Florence have," says Gejdenson.

To maintain consistency, Washington is following a practice of the San Diego location and temporarily importing chefs from Florence to staff the kitchen.  At the moment there are two, likely to stay a few months each.  Gejdenson expects to maintain an ongoing rotation, with the visitors staying at his mother's home nearby.

"It's been a nice situation for a small restaurant group because we have connections to all these places," Gejdenson says.  "We're not looking to expand much more."

  • CH

    This is the best news I've heard all day. I've been to the Acqua al 2 in Florence, and it was insanely good.

  • Another CH

    Amen to that! If the Capitol Hill version lives up to the original, this is something to be excited about.

  • DC

    I have been and I highly recommend it. While some of the dishes are amazing (probably some of the best steak in the city), some are awful. That said, the good dishes are so good it is definitely worth checking out.

    Their red sauce-based dishes stand up to any pasta dish in NYC, but the others are just so-so (and they should definitely consider eliminating the rice and peppers dish from the mix. It tasted like something you find at a food court in the mall). Final note: GET NEW BREAD! Honestly, it is the worst bread that I have ever had in a restaurant (especially disappointing for an italian restaurant). It was completely stale and I have read other reviews that complain about it. As someone that lives in the neighborhood and will definitely return, please work on this. It really can't be that hard to fix....

  • Barley There

    The Adirondack chairs out front are molto autentico!