In 1992, the high-profile Cafe Milano opened at 3251 Prospect St. NW and never looked back — and remains a favorite of Georgetown residents, visitors, politicians and celebrities alike. Its birthday celebration is Friday.
“Many things have changed over the past 25 years in D.C. We’ve seen four presidents, changing neighborhoods and varying political ideologies, but Cafe Milano still remains a safe place to come together to talk, drink and eat, in even these polarized times,” owner Franco Nuschese said.
“Cafe Milano is my wild child,” Nuschese told the Georgetowner more than 20 years ago. He was sitting in Bice, formerly a downtown restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, which he was managing in the 1990s, and talking about his new Georgetown venture.
Nuschese worked in London and also had a restaurant in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for a time. Now headquartered at Georgetown Court, he and his team — first among them manager Laurent Menoud — are also celebrating one year of the sister Cafe Milano in Abu Dhabi at the Four Seasons. Still sounds kind of Georgetown to us.
Nuschese hails from the Amalfi coast of Italy, with its classic Italian scenery along the Mediterranean — and its tradition of food and hospitality.
“It was an incredible cosmopolitan enclave in the deep South of Italy,” he said. “So, our people know how to offer a warm and hospitable reception. We know how to embrace people, making them feel at home in a special place, away from the stresses and worries. The warmth of the ‘Italian way of hospitality’ and the sharing of our food and our culinary traditions, has always defined us. We have it in our DNA.”
While the food and service are important, the Italian restaurant is known as D.C.’s place to see and be seen — and it touts itself as a “safe-haven for lawmakers and political operatives on both sides of the aisle.”
Happily, that is the case — despite the so-called Iranian terrorist plot against the restaurant. Not to be outdone, novelist Daniel Silva in his “Black Widow” writes of explosions or attacks at various Washington, D.C., landmarks, including the Kennedy Center … and Cafe Milano.
As the Washington Post wrote last year, “Sometimes, it takes a snapshot to remind us that despite all of the hip additions to Washington’s dining scene, Georgetown’s Cafe Milano is still the preferred watering hole for the city’s power class.” It highlighted the bold names around the room: Valerie Jarrett, Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham, journalist Carol Joynt, Secretary of State John Kerry, Redskins owner Dan Snyder and President Bruce Allen — along with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld, former BET owner Bob Johnson and uber-philanthropist Cherrie Doggett. “And … wait, that’s arts benefactor Adrienne Arsht slipping out the door alone.”
You get the idea: this place knows how to manage an electric scene, while keeping things relatively private. After all, it has been the scene of birthday parties for Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney and Michelle Obama — as well as Malia Obama’s high school graduation party. We could go on … okay, let’s: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Sen Mark Warner (though not all together).
Let’s not forget the catering side of the business did lunch for Pope Benedict when he visited, but let’s not mention Viola Drath having had lunch there with her murderer-husband.
Having had several offices in the same retail complex, The Georgetowner interviewed Nuschese five years ago for the restaurant’s 20th anniversary and asked about opening night.
“It was a very cold night in November in ’92,” Nuschese said. “I’ll tell you, it was great. The bar was packed. I must say, in a very humble way of course, I immediately knew what was going to happen.” Did he feel from the start that Cafe Milano would be a success?
“I knew it was going to be all right because it is very easy for me to absorb the energy of the people. This is a very important tool for a business owner. One must humble themselves and really value their client and get to the core of their likes and dislikes. That night I saw lobbyists and politicians really enjoying themselves. These people work all day in very conservative and calculated atmospheres. That night, I saw them relax in the atmosphere I created for them. At the time, we only had 52 seats and I knew immediately we would need to expand.”
Indeed, the place has expanded left and right, to the back and then up. Not bad for a place that was once a Bread & Chocolate.
Is it now seasoned, reliable vibrant Cafe Milano still a wild child? Or is the smart adult now knowing the in and and outs of Washington, D.C., its rambunctious nature notwithstanding? Well, caro lettore, ask the owner himself — when you see him at the 25th anniversary party, if you can get in, on Nov. 10 or in the weeks ahead.