If you’re looking to quickly stand out on the Washington dining scene, Italian cuisine may not be the best way to go. Even before the restaurant boom of the past fifteen years, DC has had its share of quality Italian chefs and restaurants: Roberto Donna and his various incarnations of Galileo, the “pasta mamas” of Filomena and Fabio Trabocchi’s Maestro are just a few that readily spring to mind. The field is even more crowded today, with newcomers like Casa Nonna, Carmine’s and Roberto Donna’s newest Galileo competing with long-time favorites.
Ari Gejdenson and Ralph Lee knew all that – they both grew up in the area before making their separate ways to Florence. They have since returned, bringing with them Acqua al 2 (the 2 is pronounced in Italian as “du-ay”). This is the second American outpost of the Florentine original – the first was in San Diego, naturally – and it’s a welcome addition to the restaurant options around Eastern Market. I recently had a chance to check them out with a coworker and a friend who is already well on her way to becoming a regular despite the fact that the restaurant has barely been open six months.
We knew we wanted to experience a broad range of dishes – apparently Acqua al 2 knew it, as well. The first few items on their menu are assaggi, sampler platters featuring varieties of pasta, steaks, and even desserts. The Assaggio di Primi gave us a chance to try five of their vegetarian pasta options in portions scalable to fit the number of diners in our party. All we had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride.
Sure, we had five different pasta dishes coming soon enough, but that didn’t stop us from ordering the special appetizer our server described to us. Creamy burrata cheese was served drizzled with segmented grapefruit and pine nuts and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The sweet-tart flavor of the grapefruit complemented the richness of the cheese, and the crunch of the pine nuts added a welcome bite. It was satisfying and refreshing all at once, and we made short work of it.
From there, the parade of pastas got underway. Small shells were served in a broccoli sauce that offered flavorful hints of garlic and oil, reminding me of the vast trays of cavatelli and broccoli that I frequently enjoyed at family gatherings. The shells were cooked to a nice al dente texture, allowing us to feel the pasta as we bit into it instead of simply turning to mush in our mouths.
I was skeptical when the next dish arrived and it was penne in a vodka sauce – it’s one of those dishes that is done pretty much everywhere and way too many places do it poorly. With my first bite, my respect for Acqua al 2 deepened considerably. Their vodka sauce was light and fruity, with just a hint of the astringency that the alcohol brings to the dish in return for its subtly sweet flavor. It was a sign that the kitchen wasn’t cutting corners and it made me eager to see what else we would receive.
The vodka sauce was followed by two more standouts: fusili (corkscrew pasta) in a spinach sauce whose bright flavor came from a deft hand with the leafy greens, and rigatoni (fat tubes) in a hearty sauce of eggplant, tomatoes and cheese. The latter was described as a specialty of the house, and their pride in the dish was well-founded.
Only one dish we were served failed to truly impress. Arborio rice in a slightly spicy tomato sauce was just average, with the grains a bit overcooked for my taste. The sauce redeemed the dish as a whole, but I would have been much happier if it had been served over another pasta instead of rice.
By the end of our meal we were more than satisfied and convinced that the kitchen was delivering on its promise of Florentine flavor. At a cost of $13 per person, the pasta sampler was certainly a good value, especially when compared to some of the pricier entrees on the menu. Acqua al 2 is clearly aiming at the higher end of the Italian dining market, and the dishes I tasted indicate that they’ll soon have a devoted (and deserved) Capitol Hill following.