From Italy With Love: Ghibellina on 14th
By Sarah Scully | November 8, 2013
Ari Gejdenson opened Ghibellina on 14th Street last May with two things in mind. He wanted simple Tuscan food and a place ripe for social interaction. When it came to designing a space that encouraged talking with fellow diners and drinkers, Gejdenson brought in Eric Gronning and his team of architects to transform the worn down building that used to house Jazz club HR-57, and before that a Firestone tire store, to imagine his concept of a Tuscan gastro-pub – meaning “restaurant-quality food in a drinking environment,” Gejdenson said.
It was an image of the tire store, taken around 1920, that Gejdenson, owner of Aqua al 2 on Capitol Hill, first found on Google after getting a call from Jody Greene saying that the building was available and might be just the spot for Gejdenson's next project. The image would come in handy later in appeasing the Historic Preservation Review Board, which requires buildings to maintain their historical façade, and also give way to an open façade (when weather permits) housing some of the best seats in the restaurant, and easily the best people watching on 14th Street.
The idea for Ghibellina had been percolating for years, since Gejdenson lived in Florence, when he would walk daily up and down the Via Ghibellina – he lived at one end of the street and owned an American-style diner half a block off of the other end.
An industrial, rustic style sets the tone for Tuscan staples in the restaurant, now busy nightly. Gejdensen had collected pieces over the years to eventually use in such a space – he had found scones in France, antique beer taps in one of the obscure antique sites he frequents, and procured various tiles and stones leftover from other construction projects. Gejdensen showed the pieces he had collected to Gronning as they began to map out designs and discuss the overall feel.
"Ari had a good understanding of what he wanted the restaurant to be, which was really helpful in the process," Gronning said. Working with the original structure, Ari's imports, and materials from the building, a style emerged that brought together a Tuscan country feel with a modern industrial polish. "It's clean, contemporary – simple white groutless stone against whitewashed brick – an new interpretation of an old idea," said McConnell Bobo of Gronning Architects.
"It's a combination of the owner's concept and what the building offers. I think it's important to utilize things that are there and in this case they just kind of meshed," Gronning said. Bobo explained that "we always think on three different scales. There's the scale of city – how the building interacts with the neighborhood, the human scale – how people interact with the building, and lastly and most importantly, the scale of the hand – how people experience the space, the feeling it creates. The weight of the door, a door knob – how it feels in your hand." Vital to crafting a certain feeling is how the space is divided. "We feel it's very important to have different types of space," Gronning said. "Through using the material and the light, we create these different views throughout the space. And we have elements that tie all these spaces together."
Gejdensen wanted the area divided 50-50 between the "gastro" and the "pub" – that is, half seated serving area, and half open space for drinking – because, if nothing else, "Americans like to throw drinking into everything," he said.
Entering the restaurant, a long oval bar in crisp white Carrera marble invites a drink while perched on one of the 1930s antique-replica steel and wood stools. At tables in the back, mismatched metal chairs eschew formalities and make way to compact tables that hold a surprising number of dishes for sharing. Simple wooden tabletops floating on modern, dark steel bases showcase the pizza, home-made pasta, and ragu. The ragu is a direct import from Ari's days in Florence.
"I always ate lunch when I was in Florence at this place called Trattoria Mario, which is just a typical family-owned Tuscan trattoria. And I always wanted to do some sort of style like that – everybody's really close together and the food is just so simple," Gejdenson said. Ragu was his favorite dish – "the ragu is legendary," he said.
So before opening Ghibellina, Gejdenson and his head chef, Jonathan Copeland, took a trip to Florence to train with the chefs of Trattoria Mario.
"Every morning we'd wake up at 6:30 a.m. and go do prep with them. Jonathan's an incredible chef, and my goal was, I wanted Jonathan to get how simple Tuscan food is, because I feel the majority of Italian restaurants that open here, they become sort of modern American restaurants with an Italian influence. And that's what I wanted Ghibellina not to be," Gejdenson said.
Gejdenson, a Washington, D.C., native, started his career as a restaurateur as his professional soccer career was winding down in Florence around the age of 21. "Lower division professional soccer was not going to pay the bills forever," he figured. He had noted the absence of late-night food in Florence as a teenager coming back late from soccer games to an empty fridge in his apartment, so he opened an American-style diner. It was a hit. The thousands of American study abroad students that go to Florence every year flocked to Gejdenson's Diner, as did the Italians, enamored with the concept of brunch. It was during this time that Gejdenson got his education, on the fly, in the restaurant business. And it was then that he learned to love the power of a great plate of food to change someone's outlook – someone like a homesick American college student.
"The first thing that really changed me and opened me up was you see these homesick kids come in and, I mean they look miserable. Like so miserable you don't even want to be around them. And they have some blueberry pancakes and they're just completely transformed," Gejdenson said.
That carried with him as he partnered with Stefano in neighboring Aqua al 2 and later brought Aqua al 2 to San Diego and Capitol Hill.
"I like to create the little bit of happiness we can through hospitality," Gejdenson said. "A little booze always helps. Give them some good food – puts them in a good mood."
With food covered, Gejdenson's second goal was to encourage people to talk to each other, bump into each other, be part of the place and the experience. Gronning proposed the oval bar, inspired by Au Petit Fer à Cheval, a bar Gronning has visited many times in Paris.
"I discovered it probably 15 years ago and it's always had an impression on me," Gronning said. "You can sit across from someone at a bar and it makes it more communal and it really changes the energy. It's so small you can't help but to interact with other people."
Gejdenson loved the idea. "I'm very big into human interaction and how it's disappearing," Gejdenson said. In his speakeasy, Harold Black, above Aqua al 2, Gejdenson bans cell phones. "It's all about – you're coming here to talk to somebody else," he said. "So, I wanted to make as many places there that sort of make you look at each other, make you talk to each other."
"And then all the tables are located really close to each other. Some people might find it a little annoying that your back, and someone else's back, might be here," he said, glancing backward while gesturing two diners backing their chairs into one another. "But that's sort of the concept. It's supposed to be a place where people meet and share."