Acqua al 2

$$$$ ($25-$34)

Editorial Review

First Bite: Acqua al 2 on Capitol Hill
Where diners clean their plates, then sign them
By Tom Sietsema, July 2010

Ari Gejdenson says it's "cheesy" for restaurants to display photographs signed by their celebrity customers. But the chef has no such distaste for showing off plates bearing patrons' names, as is the case at the Italian-accented Acqua al 2 on Capitol Hill. VIPs including Rahm Emmanuel and Nancy Pelosi have left their John Hancocks on a lot of white china there. The plates are scattered in glass cases and on walls throughout the establishment.

Mere mortals have contributed to the collection as well. A plate with a sketch of a ring serves as a reminder that "Nikki and Antonio" were engaged in the place, while a tiny handprint stands in for one Paloma Morrison. (Hey, the chef's niece is only 1 1/2 years old.) Altogether, there are 110 signed plates at the new restaurant thus far.

Launched in May, Acqua al 2 is the second branch of a restaurant that originated in Florence in 1978 and later spun off to San Diego. Gejdenson and his business partner, Ralph Lee -- both 28, native Washingtonians and friends since kindergarten -- summon the Old World in the long and narrow interior of the third Acqua al 2. Red brick alternates with soft yellow paint on the walls; a pressed-tin ceiling hovers overhead. A few windows in the back look onto the Ponte Vecchio, the "Old Bridge" on Florence's Arno River. (In reality, it's paint applied to a nearby brick wall.)

Cooking wasn't Gejdenson's first calling. Soccer was, and he was recruited from the area at age 16 to play the game professionally in Bolivia, Chile and eventually Italy, where he landed in Florence and discovered a taste for cooking, initially opening a deli with Lee and later working his way up the kitchen ladder at Acqua al 2. All along, the chef's mother suggested that he return to Washington and be part of the restaurant revitalization on the Hill, mere blocks from where Gejdenson was raised.

The food at Acqua al 2 is straightforward and homey, completely unfussy. The antipasti consisting of a few wedges of cheese, salami, some grilled bread topped with tomatoes and capers and prosciutto wrapped around arugula is nothing the charcuterie competition is going to rush to copy. But a side dish of fried vegetables could become a habit. Zucchini, eggplant and more, in a light sheath of beer batter, are charmingly served spilling out of a brown paper bag. Pasta and entree portions suggest weight lifters are ordering them: They're abundant. Tender sea-shell-shaped pasta draped in a broccoli sauce is too subtle for my taste. Better: the house-made gnocchi. And the steak that has everyone talking is a filet mignon whose tenderness is trumped by its sauce, not-too-sweet with blueberries and better than it sounds.