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"The rhythm of life is small-town and middle-class, which makes the town comfortable. What makes it yeasty is the cosmopolitan worldliness of its people. The man across the street has just gotten off an airplane from Karachi, and the fellow umpiring the kids softball game has spent the day over plans for putting a man on the moon."

-Russell Baker on Washington, New York Times Magazine, 1965

November 5, 2011, Washington, DC: Going out to eat in Washington, DC is fabulous in part for reasons like this: The clientele in cozy spots around the corner from home is more often than not impressive and fascinating. It's no wonder then that the best seat in the house is right up front for a meal at the bar, where you can observe the people who come and go and hear a bit about their day. That's the spot we chose last night for our first trip to Acqua Al 2.

Tables were booked solid last night despite our early arrival, but the remaining option was just our style. From a bar stool overlooking the cobblestone section of 7th St. SE. across the street from Eastern Market, we watched and we listened and we celebrated nothing more than the fact that it was Friday. Sometimes a regular old night of happiness and health and not a plan in sight is occasion enough to try that spot you've been reserving for something special.

The non-occasion also reminded me of this: that there are ways to dine at seemingly fancy city restaurants without breaking the bank. A shared appetizer and two "small" pasta plates intended as starters were most certainly filling enough to call a full meal, and ultimately no more expensive than dining at a nearby pub.

And with bowtie pasta with pumpkin and rosemary, and hand-rolled ricotta and spinach balls baked in tomato sauce, it's official: We've finally found our neighborhood Italian restaurant, our East Coast equivalent of the beloved Nob Hill Cafe.

Bring on winter and darkness. With gathering places like this one, Washingtonians are ready.