12 May 2010

A First Bite Review of Acqua al 2

I’ll admit from the start that I am a bit biased in my review here.  For some time now I have been lamenting the Hill’s lack of a good Italian restaurant that doesn’t suffer from the Olive Garden-tendency to think that pasta should be hidden in large mounds of cream-based sauces and then topped with extra cheese.  I’m not saying that we have no good options on the Hill, but the existing ones just fall a little short of satisfying my personal cravings.  After spending some time in Italy, and going to school in the heart of the Italian section of the Bronx, I crave certain things in a good Italian restaurant.  Yes, I realize that I am being a bit snobbish in my standards, but we all have something that we are overly picky with.

So I’ve been eagerly following the progress of Acqua al 2, whose first location was opened in Florence, Italy in 1978.  (A second location in San Diego, California was opened in 2000.)  In hearing that they would have a menu of Tuscan cuisine, I knew I was finally in for the kind of Italian meal I had been craving for so long.

While their tables were all booked up on Saturday – their opening night – my dad and I decided to stop by to just eat at the bar, where we were able to chat with Nathan Berger, the bar manager who also happens to be my next door neighbor.   Despite getting a peek at a menu one night last week, I had no idea what to order because everything was making my mouth water.

Cold and hot appetizers include standard soups and salads but also items like grilled eggplant with house tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, sliced smoked salmon, or an assortment of salami, prosciutto, and fennel sausage with cheese on mixed greens.  We split the Strozzapreti al Pomodoro, which is fresh ricotta cheese and spinach balls hand rolled and baked in their house tomato sauce then topped with Parmesan cheese. Something about that just called to me.  I loved it and suspect that I will be tempted to order this every time I visit.

The primi piatti selection ranges from a long list of pasta dishes, as well as a few risotto and gnocchi options.  I love pasta and had too hard of a time deciding which one to get so we chose the sampling option: for $16 you can get a sampling of five dishes that the chef picks.  They recommend that two people share this, and you end up with 3-4 bites of each dish.  Each tasting came out separately, and a bit slowly for my hungry stomach, but they were all fantastic and worth the wait.

Our tasting included the Farfalline alla Zucchini (bow tie pasta with zucchini, garlic, rosemary and a touch of Parmesan cheese), Rigatoni alle Melanzane (tube shaped pasta with a tomato eggplant sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese), Maccheroni alla Vodka (little penne pasta in a vodka sauce with a touch of tomato sauce), Riso ai Funghi Porcini (carnaroli rice with sautéed porcini mushrooms a touch of garlic and parsley), and the Fusilli Corti agli Spinaci (corkscrew pasta in a light spinach sauce).  My favorites were the Riso ai Funghi Porcini and the Farfalline alla Zucchini, while my dad’s favorite was the Fusilli Corti agli Spinaci.

You also have the option to order a sampling of three secondi piatti for $30 but we decided to just split the Lombatina ai Funghi Porcini, which is a hand-cut veal chop sautéed in a porcini mushroom, white wine and garlic sauce.  Other options include a range of steak and chicken dishes; in hindsight I wish I had gotten a peek at other people’s plates so I could say how large or small the dishes were, but I guess that just means I will have to go back.  The menu also touts organically raised and grass-fed meats.

One thing the menu is missing is vegetarian options on the secondi selections, leaving anyone craving fish or something other than steak and chicken limited to small-plate options.  The addition of a couple of fish entrees would go a long way.

So clearly I loved the food (and am really hungry after writing all of that), but what about the rest of the place?  The restaurant is not large and while 100+ seats have been squeezed in a bit tight, I think there is a lovely intimate feel.  The woodwork, copper bar and tin roof create a beautiful space, and the front windows are sure to become a favorite spot for folks coming in for a drink.  The owners are in the process of obtaining permits for adding sidewalk tables, and plan to serve brunch in the near future as well.  Appetizers range from $9-$14, primi piatti from $12-$14 ($16 for the sampling of five), and secondi piatti range from $15-$29 ($30 for the sampling of three).  Because the primi piatti are small, you should plan on also ordering a secondi…which means that this is not exactly your most affordable restaurant on the Hill.  However, I think that the food is very and worth the price, and the ambiance makes this a great place for a special date night.  For my taste buds, this is a welcome addition to the neighborhood and I can’t wait for an excuse to go back to try some more dishes.

Acqua Al 2 DC
212 7th Street SE

Washington, DC 20003
202-525-4375

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  • David

    I had dinner there last night — and while the food was excellent, they’re still working out some kinks. I had an 8:15 reservation (for four), and wasn’t seated until nearly 9:30! Thankfully, they bought us a round of drinks — but a delay of that length is really pretty bad.

  • Bobby

    Did you have any wine? I’m wondering what the list is like.

  • Mario

    I’d be interested to know what the good Italian options are on the Hill.

    Sonoma is quite good, but where else?

    Trattoria Alberto? We have only eaten there once for a reason. Do others feel differently?

    It was very disappointing to see Locunda close. I’d like to know more about that; it seemed to always be busy.

  • Michael

    If this place is as good as the original, it is definitely worth the visit.

    When I studied in Florence, my roommates and I ate at Acqua often. I am happy to see they kept the menu similar. My all time favorite was the Filetto al Mirtillo- the blueberry steak sauce was so original and unique. I’m looking forward to giving it a try here.

  • Claudia Holwill

    @Bobby – we did order a bottle of wine, but I don’t remember which one. Pretty much the entire list is comprised of wines from the Tuscan region. I personally think they need to breathe a bit before you have your first glass, but after that they are quite enjoyable. I also tried a muscato at the end of the meal- really delicious if you enjoy dessert wines.

    @Mario – Sonoma isn’t really Italian in my book, and I have only eaten at Albertos once – it’s far from the kind of Italian food that I like, but I know that there are people on the Hill who love it. I ate at Toscana Cafe once and have been meaning to go back to try a few other items on their menu because I have heard very good things. But the one time I went I was a bit underwhelmed. As for Locanda, I miss it as well. My understanding is that it closed because the owners decided to part ways.

    @Michael – I’d love to hear your thoughts after you’ve tried it! I’m very curious about how it stands up to the original location.

  • AP

    I took my visiting parents there for dinner last weekend. The place has potential, but needs some refining to make it worth returning.

    1) the plates were not warmed so in the air conditioned restaurant the entrees cooled quickly.
    2) the wine pours by the glass were only 2/3 of what they should be, judging by other nice places in the District.
    3) service struggled a bit — they served the table two pieces of bread in a paper sack for a party of three and they forgot to bring out the sides with dinner, which meant they were not served at all, as the only alternative would have been to eat them after the entrees were finished .
    4) be sure to request NOT to be seated in the booths between the front room and the main dining room. They have crammed them in too tightly, they don’t move and it’s quite uncomfortable.

    Having said that, the steak was excellent, and the atmosphere in the main dining room looked good. I’d give Acqua another try, making sure I was seated in the main dining room and ordering wine by the bottle.

  • DB

    Based on one meal: salads — fennel & pine nuts, mozzarella & tomatoes — were excellent, and pastas OK. The clunker was the $26 veal chop, which turned out to be a thin veal cutlet. A cutlet is not a chop.

    Oh, and no seafood on the menu at all.

    DB

  • Kyra

    I will admit to liking Albertos. Our dear friends, who are from Italy, know the owners, so we meet there often for dinner. I’d say we eat there about once a month. They’ve never once complained, and are amazing cooks, so I never thought twice about the food. I’ve always liked it. It’s passable Italian food. (Read: not like what I get back home, but what ever is?)

    And then I mentioned that I like Albertos to some folks who write for the blog, and now I am a little embarassed to admit that I like it.

    I’m no foodie, but I do I love food. I guess I just have lower standards.

    That said, There are few places that consistently wow me. One that does is Matchbox. I’m hoping Ted’s is the same.

    And I guess that is my biggest complaint with most restaurants on the hill. Inconsistency.

  • Sarah

    Went last night for the first time with a friend who had already been once. At her suggestion, we did the salad, pasta, and dessert samplers — all fantastic! My husband and I did a cooking class in Tuscany for our honeymoon, and the pasta dishes brought me right back, especially the Rigatoni alle Melanzane — can’t wait to return!

  • Jason Mrte

    Spectacular food. I havent had authentic tuscan menu like this since traveling through Italy. I give it 5 stars.

  • NotesOnMyBathroomMirror

    COMPETELY Unprofessional – Never, EVER hold an event here. I tried to have a small work event at one of the tables in the front of the restaurant. First, whenever I would call the restaurant, the owner who said he was in charge of my event, was always “asleep” or “unavailable”. I NEVER talked to the same person about my event twice and had to make multiple calls to firm up all my details. The event itself was okay, but when it came time to make the payment, the owner would not accept the check my company had written him because he “didn’t like the way it was made out” (The restaurant name was incomplete, something my boss wrote in and initialed as correct.) He chased my boss out of the restaurant and argued with her about the check in the street (in front of clients and a Congressman!) and insisted that she LEAVE her credit card with him. He said I could come back tomorrow with a rewritten check to get her credit card at 10 am. When I arrived at 11 am, his cook staff informed me that, yet again, the owner was “asleep” and despite trying to call him three times, they could not get him to wake up. (I should note that the cook staff tried their hardest to be helpful. They deserve better leadership!) It was only after I had gotten all the way back to my office and called the owner that I finally heard from him…around 11:30am. He said he was there now and that I could come exchange the check for the credit card “anytime”. For the second time that day, I traveled all the way to SE to resolve the situation. When I got there, once again, the owner was not at the restaurant and had to be called by his employees. When he finally appeared with the credit card, I asked him for a receipt verifying that he had reversed the charge. It was at this point that he informed me that he was not able to reverse the charge and that his General Manager, the only person able to reverse charges, would not arrive until 3:30. He told me I would have to come back then. I told him I thought this entire situation was ridiculous, took back my check, and left, to return at 3:30 to try and resolve the issue again. I have NEVER encountered such incompetence with event staff in a restaurant, especially not one on Capitol Hill, where a lot of their bread and butter comes from doing events. I will NEVER be working with Acqua Al 2 DC again.

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