Watching executive chef Ari Gejdenson swiftly expedite plates at Acqua al 2, you’d never guess that he was previously an international soccer player and that the sport was what got him into the restaurant industry. For starters, playing soccer allowed the young chef to travel and be exposed to all different kinds of cuisines in foreign countries. And it was soccer that took Ari to Florence where he began his unorthodox journey to the kitchen. Not long after moving to Italy, he wound up opening Ari’s Diner, an American-style eatery. “I saw a gap and that it was something that was needed in Florence,” he says, adding that a lot of the clientele were American students who were studying abroad.
For Ari, playing soccer and running a restaurant aren’t so different, as he explains that in both arenas your job is to entertain people. “These homesick kids would come in[to the diner] upset. And they would come to this place that reminded them of home and they’d leave happy,” he says. “The whole idea of bringing people into a moment by heightening their tastes was what made me want to become a chef.” At Acqua al 2, you can see him work the room with ease, transitioning from calling out food orders to the kitchen to shaking hands and hugging regular customers.
After running Ari’s Diner with his childhood friend, Ralph Lee, who is a co-owner of Acqua al 2 in Eastern Market, Ari started working at the original Acqua al 2 in Florence and eventually served as the chef for several years there. Gejdenson says it’s hard to be in Italy and not get swept up in the incredibly rich food culture. “The passion for food in Italy is a different thing. You’d have to have a blindfold on not to notice,” he says. After years of living and working in Florence, the Washington native returned home to open the second U.S. location of Acqua al 2.
“I always knew I would be coming back to DC. My journey in Italy unfolded a little longer than I expected,” the chef says with a little laugh. Born and raised in Northeast DC, Ari describes the city as have an “exciting engergy” and as an “ever-changing place.” Ari talks about growing up listening to Fugazi and being part of the DC punk rock scene, and adds that one of his favorite things about DC are the little subcultures. Though he admits the city saw some rough times in the 1980s and 1990s, he says that he loves everything about DC, even the bad things.
In regards to the restaurant scene, Ari can certainly attest to how it’s changed from the time he was growing up to now. Whereas DC used to have not many places to eat or little isolated strips, now the city is “thriving and there are so many possibilities to contribute and opportunities to open unique places,” says Ari. From here, the young chef would like to see more independent, chef-driven restaurants open–the kind of places where the focus is on the food and not the volume or turning a massive profit. “The city is headed in the right direction,” he says.
In the kitchen, Ari describes his style as “calm, fun and organized.” I listened to him switch easily between English, Spanish and Italian as he moved about the place interacting with different staff members. “My favorite part of the job is the cooking, combined with being able to employ good people,” he says. On the flip side, the most challenging aspect is seeking perfection–those “seamless nights” where everything goes right, he says. “We come pretty close,” he adds with a smile.
Drawing on his experience in Florence and memories of foods and flavors he had there, Ari’s menu closely mirrors that of the original Acqua al 2. As a side note, you can’t go wrong with any of the pastas on the menu, the steak with blueberry sauce (don’t you scoff at that combination, readers) and the burrata with honey and grapefruit. DC, this is the neighborhood Italian place I’ve been searching high and low for. “I like the simplicity of Tuscan food,” he says, adding that he also draws inspiration from the nearby produce in Eastern Market. The chef and his team are planning on adding a communal dining option in their upstairs private dining room, where they’ll have one 24-foot table that seats up to 26 guests. Ari says that the goal of the communal dining table will be to get Washingtonians talking to one another and meeting the unique and interesting characters the city has to offer.
Check back at 1 PM for Ari’s recipe for beef ragu that would knock the socks off your Italian grandmother.