Franco Nuschese is an Italian “hospitality entrepreneur” and owner of Georgetown’s highbrow Café Milano and its more relaxed sister restaurant, Sette Osteria in Dupont Circle. I recently dined at both of these restaurants for dinner and had comparable experiences: while the atmosphere at each was enjoyable, the food was just so-so.
Indeed, on Café Milano’s website, Nuschese boasts, “The restaurant business is very similar to the entertainment business,” perhaps a reflection of his past experience in Las Vegas. And in this way, Café Milano certainly shines. The staff works hard to provide the restaurant’s patrons, many of whom are the District’s political elite, with comfortable seating and constant attention and assistance without crossing the line into annoying. Nuschese himself is known to dote on Washington’s high-ranking socialites when they come into his restaurant. And Café Milano is certainly a scene. The crowd, especially on busy weekend nights, is dressed to impress to either be seated at tables for dinner or to mingle around the bar. The women seem to blend in with the framed Italian designer scarves that decorate the walls. As the night picks up, the restaurant’s main dining room can get loud, but not in a dinner-hindering, noise-deafening way. Café Milano buzzes with energy and is a great place to see and be seen.
However, Nuschese struggles to follow through with his statement that although a restaurant’s atmosphere must be entertaining, it also must “serve the very best food.” I do not think that Café Milano has the best Italian food in DC. Our dinner was very mixed. Overall, I found that the ingredients in all of the dishes were fresh and of high quality and that the simple, classic dishes were the most successful. For example, our starters of crispy Mediterranean calamari and zucchini with a side of lemon aioli sauce and the arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan cheese were delicious. Some of their pasta selection is also handmade daily, such as the very good Paglia e Fieno Zegna, spinach and egg fettuccine with veal Bolognese sauce. But when the dishes are slightly more creative and nontraditional, the flavors just are not all there. The Ravioli Cavalli, also homemade and filled with braised veal and spinach with sage and veal reduction sauce, was curiously bland. We also tried the softshell crab special of the night, which was cooked well—lightly breaded and pan seared—but too salty without much else for flavor. All of the pizzas that came out of the oven looked good, but when you are dining at a top Italian restaurant, do you really want to order a pizza? I would rather save it for 2 Amys, my favorite pizza place not far up Wisconsin Ave.
I had a very similar experience for dinner at Sette Osteria. The restaurant is definitely not as formal and much less expensive than Café Milano, giving it a warm, neighborhood feel. The menu is similar—a good selection of pizza, pasta, and Italian favorites. Again, my arugula salad was very good, and I wish I had ordered a pizza to eat alongside my salad because like at Café Milano, my friend’s pizza looked very good. Instead, I ordered the Linguine della Paranza, linguine with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, and scallops in a fresh tomato sauce. It was not good– the mussels and clams were bad, the pasta was overcooked, and the sauce was bland.
Based on my experiences, I think that Café Milano and Sette Osteria are fun places to go, but not necessarily with a picky or adventurous palette. Stick to the basics, such as the pizzas and salads, even though the more interesting dishes on the menu may tempt you. Although Café Milano is a fun place to go for dinner, the best meal I ever had there was during lunch. It was more low-key, but the food was tastier. It is unfortunate that entertainment value and food quality seem to be indirectly proportional at Café Milano. Nuschese also has a third restaurant in the Clarendon section of Arlington, Virginia that seems very similar to Sette Osteria, Sette Bello.
Café Milano Sette Osteria
3251 Prospect Street, NW 1666 Connecticut Ave
Washington, DC 20007 Washington, DC 20009
(202) 333-6183 (202) 483-3070