Blueberry steak—perhaps the signature menu item at famed local restaurant Acqua al 2—has raised more than a few Florentine eyebrows over the years. But at the time of the Medici, co-founder Stefano Innocenti insists, sweet fruits matched with meats, roasts and game like salt with pepper.
Innocenti hardly needs to lecture his diners on the details of Renaissance-era diets. The dish speaks for itself, winning over even the skeptics—usually quite quickly.
The same could be said for Acqua al 2 itself and the risks it took early on, when the Florentine dining scene was largely one-dimensional. This year the popular eatery is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and Innocenti doesn’t mince words: “Really, we’re able to work today because of the work we accomplished decades ago,” he says.
In 1978, with a modest loan from his marble-working grandfather and a small band of co-founders, a tender-aged Innocenti sought to create a restaurant with a plain but then-untapped premise: one of “give the people what they want,” perhaps before they even knew they wanted it. Casual dining in Florence was still highly codified, the familiar trattoria menu keeping any meal out predictably formulaic, Innocenti says: “You had your antipasto, your first course, main, dessert, coffee, boom, done.”
It was a successful and beloved model, sure, but one that Acqua al 2 aimed to disrupt: sampling a variety of things, sharing, and skipping or subbing one stage of the meal for another were largely unheard of until the restaurant introduced its “Assaggi” options—five first courses, five salads and, later, the same assortment of seconds, cheeses and desserts. To today’s diner, accustomed to a landscape of tasting menus and tapas, Acqua al 2’s approach doesn’t seem radical. But back then, it was the restaurant’s distinguishing feature and the source of its wide appeal: Innocenti recalls how queues snaked outside its original location (via dell’Acqua 2, hence the name), particularly on nights when splashy theatre productions were happening up the road at Teatro Verdi.
Somehow there was always room for everybody (and every budget): pre- and post-shows, tables overflowed with theatregoers, stage stars and students with nosebleed-section tickets.
The constant activity helped Innocenti earned his house nickname, “Mr. Minuto,” from all his dashing about and assurances to diners that he’d be back in just a “minuto.”
Acqua al 2’s longstanding connection to the theatre crowd is on full display in the eatery’s trademark décor, walls upon walls of autographed white china plates, showcasing the signatures of everyone from ‘round-the-corner regulars to full casts of Hair, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Peter Pan and the like. Fashion personalities followed suit; at the height of Acqua al 2’s early heyday, Innocenti recalls, the restaurant phone number was announced at regular intervals over the loudspeaker at the Pitti Uomo shows. “Everyone came here,” Innocenti says proudly, “and today they come back with their kids, spouses, grandchildren.”
The tradition of repeat customers has continued even as the clientele has shifted in a more international direction, which Innocenti attributes in part to the introduction of the ZTL—the restricted traffic zone comprising the historic center—as well as to the advent of more accessible travel. Precious few foreigners dined at Acqua al 2 in the early days, according to Innocenti, since vacationing in Florence was a luxury reserved mainly for elite jetsetters who scarcely set foot in locales not requiring a jacket. The broadening of traveler definitions beyond a “Grand Tourist” prototype, combined with the changes to city infrastructure, helped bring a new face to Acqua al 2’s base.
Innocenti as figurehead certainly contributed to this growth in global customers: he’s modest about his larger-than-life personality playing any part in this, but knock back a coffee with him and it’s all clear. He made his foray onto Florence’s study-abroad scene in the early ‘90s, teaching courses on Italian food and cooking in high profile schools including Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici and Florence University of the Arts. Former students and their families book tables far in advance for their return trips and relish the chance to talk memories with “Mr. Minuto.” Bolstering the international reputation is the Acqua al 2 on Capitol Hill in DC: it opened in 2010, years after Innocenti’s first chance meeting with American student athlete-turned-cook Ari Gejdenson, who’s since grown up and established himself as the stateside arm of Acqua al 2, drawing in nostalgic-for-Florence customers in droves.
Today the distinguishing feature of Acqua al 2 is constancy. The classics of the menu remain untouched, management (Innocenti, Gianni Ravera, Lucia degl’Innocenti and Valentino Pagliari) has hardly shifted, and the quality-for-price point is just right. Over the coming season, plans are in the works to offer a free or discounted special, most likely of the dessert variety, as a celebration of four fruitful decades. It will be one of the few menu changes the place has ever seen. Perhaps that’s exactly why everyone keeps circling back.
Acqua al 2
via della Vigna Vecchia 40r, Florence
Tel. +39 055 28 41 70