Classical Italian – Acqua Al 2

| October 5, 2014 | 0 Comments

The descriptive term “classical” is often applied to such things as music and architecture. But it can also be applied to food, to mean traditional or the way it has been prepared for a long time or perhaps the way my mother used to make it. I think of it as classical when I return to a restaurant after a long absence to find that the dishes have not changed much, that the food and ambiance are relatively the same, and that I enjoy my dining experience as much as ever.

Acqua Al 2 is located at 322 Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego.

Acqua Al 2 is located at 322 Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego.

I recently revisited one of my favorite Italian restaurants,  Acqua Al 2, in the Gaslamp. I’ve been so busy checking out the many new restaurants that have appeared on our city’s culinary scene that sometimes old friends become neglected. It was refreshing to dine again on the comfortable outdoor patio, watching the kaleidoscope of Saturday night revelers walking by, and to savor again both the subtle and the strong flavors of Tuscany.

If you haven’t checked it out, here’s a bit of history. The original restaurant is one of the most famous in Florence, Italy — that exciting tourist destination where the Ponte Vecchio, Pitti Palace, Duomo and Academia are only a few of the historic sites to enjoy. Acqua Al 2 is located near the Duomo and is one the favorite restaurants in town, a favorite destination for such celebrities as Samuel L. Jackson and Lauren Hutton. Its chef/owner, Stefano Innocenti, was also a professor at a top local culinary school, Instituto Culinario.

As a young man, Martin Gonzales was an inveterate international traveler who stopped to learn to speak Italian by enrolling in a cooking school in Tuscany. Gonzales was named “Best Student” at the school and won the opportunity to work with Innocenti. He convinced Innocenti that he should be given the chance to open a similar restaurant in San Diego, in the heart of the Gaslamp. The menus at the two restaurants are the same, the cooking styles are the same, even the ambiance is similar. It is a chance to experience Florence without the airfare.

Located close to the Convention Center, Acqua Al 2 has won over a loyal following of local residents during its many years here, as well as appealing to transient visitors in nearby hotels. During the baseball season, many Padres players unwind there after home games.

Wide doors open to the bar, on one side, and to the interior space, which is carved into intimate sections by room dividers. There are dozens of plates hanging on these dividers, with messages and signatures by many famous patrons. It is fun to walk around and search for recognizable names, like Padre Jay Payton, NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, and local newscaster Carol LeBeau.

The dinner menu at Acqua Al 2 is divided into the classic Italian categories of antipasto, primi, secondi and dolci. Hearty eaters as well as lovers, Italians love to linger over their meals, enjoying an array of dishes. Antipasti or appetizers include freddi or caldi, cold or hot selections. Secondi or entrees on the regular menu list hand cut veal chop and hand shaped filet mignon.

Wines are an important feature of dining in Italy as well as in France. The focus is on experiencing flavors rather than just eating. One enjoys the scope of wine and its interaction with dishes prepared by the chef, which are often paired specifically for the dish. Chef Gonzales has put together a large wine list, skewed towards Italian selections but also offer choices from the U.S. and around the world. Many prices are moderate and many are available by the glass.
To help his guests have a broader scope of wine experience, Gonzales opened a second restaurant nearby in the Gaslamp, Toast Enoteca & Cucina. Enoteca means wine shop and cucina means kitchen in Italian. Toast refers to the clinking of glasses, not the burning of bread.

The recipes in the Toast kitchen are the same as at Acqua Al 2. But the wine selection is huge. Enjoy up to 400 wines and 65 wines by the glass via tastings from state-of-the-art wine dispensing Enomatic machines. The machines are activated by a card, like a credit card, that is pre-purchased and permits small wine tasting pours from dispensers. This is a different way to enjoy great food and a wine tasting experience that is self generated. Good wine pairings to the food bring out subtleties of taste in each food item and wine individually and in their combination.

Acqua Al 2 and Toast Enoteca & Cucina bring Italy home. Either or both offer wonderful dining and opportunities to sample and enjoy good wine. Acqua Al 2 is located at 322 Fifth Avenue. Toast Enoteca & Cucina is located nearby at 927 J Street. Call (619) 230-0382 for information and reservations at either restaurant.

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