Acqua al 2
322 5th Ave.
Once again my date and I found ourselves wandering, hungry and directionless, through the Gaslamp.
"What are you in the mood for?"
"I dunno," I shrugged. "What are you in the mood for?"
Just then we came upon a sign announcing the "best Italian restaurant, 2003." Ah, yes, Italian food, the decision that is not a decision, and hence the perfect accompaniment to my dating life. We stepped inside Acqua al 2. The "2," pronounced approximately DEW-way, refers to the address of the original Acqua al 2, in the theater district of Florence. Hence the motto: "The romance that was born in the theater, continues."
She smiled. "What about the romance born in an East County dive bar?"
I forced a laugh. "Would you really call it a "romance'?"
"Well, what would you call it?" she snapped.
"I don't know." I soaked an individually grilled slice of open crumb bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. "You know, um, maybe we shouldn't put labels on these things."
She fell silent. I assumed that, like me, she had become overwhelmed by the menu. The pasta list alone was more than one wishy-washy couple could ever manage. But then we saw the assaggio: assaggio di formaggi, a sampler of four imported Italian cheeses, and assaggio d'insalate, a three-salad sampler. The cheese plate was a sure-fire hit for the fromage-fetish date, and the salad sampler offered a heart of palm; apple, spinach and blue cheese; and tomato with mozzarella salads. Ironically, the usual Italian sampler, antipasto, was relatively paltry and mundane in comparison, with unforgivably old and wilted greens. The air-dried fillet carpaccio was a delight, though, both here and on its own plate, served over arugula and topped with shaved parmesan and a tease of olive oil.
With their "signature dish," assaggio di primi, a selection of five first dishes, and assaggio di secondi, a random sampling of whatever entrées the chef is cooking at the time, we ordered an entire four-course meal without making one decision. Beautiful. The samples in the assaggio di primi were delicious, from a fusilli with parmesan and spinach cream sauce, to a maccheroni with a creamy vodka tomato sauce.
The modest portions, especially when shared, gave just a flavor of each dish. Unfortunately, the relatively staid and unchanging selections were all somewhat basic noodle and sauce pastas, rather than risotto, gnocchi or cheese-stuffed cannelloni. So I ordered side plates of gorgonzola risotto and gorgonzola gnocchi. The gnocchi was, as the waitress had warned, incredibly salty, the pasta thick and clumsy. The rich, slightly chewy risotto seemed more able to handle the chunks of tart, salty gorgonzola.
"What do you think of us?" my date asked.
"I like it a lot better than the gnocchi."
"No, not this," she said. "I asked you what you thought of us."
I ate an entire strozzapretti, a straightforward ball of spinach and parmesan topped with tomato sauce and cheese, pretending to savor it until our waiter returned with our entrées.
I ordered the nightly seafood special, shrimp and scallops with just a touch of cream sauce over pappardelle, an extremely broad long noodle. Unfortunately, seafood might be absent from the menu for a reason. The limp and mushy pasta could have used some of the toothiness of the shellfish, and vice versa. Our assaggio di secondi crapshoot turned up as a better sampling of three beef dishes: two delicately cooked fillets, one with sautéed blueberry sauce, one with a balsamic vinegar, and slices of surprisingly overcooked New York steak with parmesan and olive oil on focaccia. The pleasantly tart blueberry sauce had none of the sweetness I was dreading, but we declared the fillet in a syrupy balsamic vinegar sauce the best by a hair.
We capped our indecision-fest, naturally, with assaggio di dolci. The smooth cheesecake had a deep, sharp-cheese tang, the ultra-thin crust providing the sweetness, among the best I have ever tasted. The tiramisu was more decadent, appealing to my sweet tooth. Only the flourless chocolate cake disappointed us, seeming lifeless in comparison.
"Do you want some time apart?" she asked as she sipped her coffee. "Just give me a straight answer."
"Of course not!" I said. "Maybe. I don't know. Here, you've got to try this cheesecake."
Make a stand for wishy-washiness at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com. Or don't.