Tradition says the appropriate 30th anniversary gift is pearl. Lustrous, precious, a pearl is the result of time and pressure, thousands of layers in a one-of-a-kind arrangement. No two are ever the same. It’s a fitting metaphor for Cafe Milano, the Georgetown restaurant which opened its doors November 3, 1992.
Celebrating its 30th year, the elegant eatery has become an institution like no other, beloved by all manner of politicians, pundits, moguls, musicians, actors, athletes and more. According to Franco Nuschese, Cafe Milano’s affable, subtle owner, like the rarest pearls, it all happened when grit met chance. Born in the town of Minori on the Amalfi Coast, Nuschese cut his teeth managing restaurants for Caesars Palace in the 1980s.
After a decade splitting his time between the casino company’s Las Vegas and Milan offices, he was ready for a change.
“On pure coincidence, a good friend of mine said, ‘Would you be interested in coming to Washington, D.C. and opening a restaurant for us?’” Nuschese recalls.
He had visited D.C. once before and liked what he saw, particularly its small size, and immediately said, “Yes.”
Although his friend’s offer was only for one year, the restaurateur came across an opportunity to extend his stay.
“Very late one night someone asked, ‘Would you be interested in opening a restaurant in Georgetown?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I was ready to go back to the West Coast. But I came to see the space, a former Bread and Chocolate coffee shop. It was small — 52 seats to be precise. A few tables outside. It was off the big street [Wisconsin Avenue], which I liked. There was a parking lot below and across the street, which was helpful, and these apartments above us. I took a walk around, all the way up to the university. There weren’t really any Italian restaurants around. I felt this could be a great causal place for all the students to go.”
Relating this, behind his elegantly curved desk in his cream-colored office full of photos and sunlight, Nuschese displays his keen eyes. His attention to detail is only matched by his sense of hospitality. Both have served him well over his career.
Work got underway Fourth of July weekend and wrapped up just in time for a different constitutional celebration, election night, which saw Bill Clinton win the country’s highest office.
“No plans whatsoever,” Nuschese says of the cafe’s timing coinciding with election night. “We just happened to be ready by then. Opening night, the bar was packed.”
“I don’t know if people were drinking because they were sad or because they were celebrating,” he continues with a waggish smile. “That’s Washington, right? It was a great, great beginning for us.”
Over the next 10 years, the restaurant grew in size and reputation as the student crowd mingled with an older, better heeled, suburban one. Nuschese credits his staff for creating a sophisticated, welcoming experience for everyone.
“We want to be causal but elegant at the same time. It’s not an easy task. The staff plays a big role, from the managers to the bartenders. Everyone. We have to deal with a lot of elements: the atmosphere, the security, the food. It’s a production. We have to put on a show, and anything can happen.”
Dining at Cafe Milano, it’s easy to see what Nuschese means. In the pleasant warm-lit rush and thrum of the restaurant, little escapes the attentive staff’s notice, from an empty water glass to a momentarily wobbly table. Everyone smiles and greets you as you walk through the space. Framed silk scarves adorn butter-yellow walls, a nod to Milan’s reputation as a fashion capital of the world and Nuschese’s time living between the city’s famed Via Monte Napoleone and Via della Spiga. A fleet of deep-bellied wine glasses stand glimmering at attention at the bar.
The level of care extends naturally to the food. Ingredients are the best possible quality, imported regularly or sourced locally, all in small quantities. A buyer in Italy researches and recommends olive oil, cheeses, tomatoes and pasta. Everything is purchased in glass jars, not cans. Beyond the perishables, the tablecloths, napkins and hand soap are all carefully considered.
“It’s not easy,” Nuschese says. “If we have the opportunity to take that extra step, push, do something better, we should. I still want to provide the best service and experience we can. From the moment you arrive to when you depart, we will give the best of ourselves.”
To that end, diners can, and frequently do, request off-menu items. Regulars might also find their favorite cocktail waiting at their table, or a personalized note bearing birthday, anniversary, promotion or retirement wishes.
“The service doesn’t stop after you pay the check and leave by the door,” Nuschese continues. “We will remember you.”
While the restaurant, and the man himself, have received much attention over the last 30 years, Nuschese — who is also a philanthropist, father and a Commendatore dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana — is quick to deflect.
“I am more about celebrating others. I enjoy giving back and being able to create a memorable evening.”
Considering 30 years of such evenings, Nuschese takes a moment to speak grandly.
“I feel very fortunate we were able to make people happy. In some cases, we were part of history. We had heads of states and greats from all over the world who chose to come to Cafe Milano. I was able to host the Pope [Benedict XVI]. That will stay with me for the rest of my life. At the same time, we were able to give this experience to a lot of people.”
As for the next 30 years, Nuschese hints at a boutique hotel in Italy among many other ideas.
“I’m glad I don’t feel old,” he quips, raising his eyebrows. “All this gives me more energy.”
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