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."