In Italy the differences among a ristorante, trattoria, and osteria have faded: Traditionally a ristorante was fancy, a trattoria less so, and an osteria humble and inexpensive. No one could accuse Franco Nuschese's sleek new Sette Osteria of being humble, but it is inexpensive–everything on the menu of pizzas, pastas, and salads is priced at $12 or below except for a few daily specials.
Nuschese's success with his flagship restaurant, Café Milano in Georgetown, has been impressive. As much social club as restaurant, it is a hangout for Washington's beautiful people, attracted as much by Nuschese's skill as a host as by the good cooking.
Sette Osteria seems aimed at a different customer–younger, less affluent, looking for a place to eat as a part of an evening's entertainment rather than as a place to be seen.
It's a handsome place. An open kitchen shows the wood-burning pizza oven on the back wall; a comfortable bar is perpendicular to it. But the nicest touch is the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows of a well-preserved corner where buildings date to the early 20th century. Mirrors inside reflect the view. Sette Osteria will become an even more appealing place as warmer weather allows for seating on the sidewalk along R Street.
The list of antipasti is similar to what you'd find in a simple restaurant in Italy–Neapolitan-style fried mozzarella; a dish of marinated olives and pickled vegetables; roasted red peppers and eggplant; and best of all, an assortment of very good salumi, or Italian cold cuts–prosciutto, sopressata, mortadella, and coppa. A serving of one is $8; an assortment for the table is $19. Only the calamari, fried in stale oil, were disappointing.
Pizzas from the wood-fired oven, while pretty good, are no match for those of Pizzeria Paradiso just a couple of blocks away. The dough is soft and flavorful, but the crust sometimes has been undercooked. The set combinations are classic–quattro formaggi, stagioni, Margherita–and there's also an extensive list of other ingredients if diners want to design their own.
The most impressive part of the menu is the pasta section designed by Café Milano executive chef Domenico Cornacchia. The pastas are cooked al dente and sparely sauced with top-quality ingredients. Mezzani Cacio e Uova–zita with pancetta, black pepper, and a sauce of pecorino cheese–is a treat. Cecatelli con Cime de Rape combines the slight bitterness of broccoli rabe with the bracing sharpness of pecorino. Malfada con le Zucchini sauces wide fettuccine noodles with onion, zucchini, pancetta, and shavings of hard cheese. Each is a very good match of pasta and sauce.
There are daily specials. Grilled octopus, cuttlefish, and halibut surrounded an arugula salad–all nicely cooked except for the tough octopus. A stuffed veal roll in tomato sauce was tasty but accompanied by stone-cold broccoli rabe.
Desserts, all $6 except for the $9 cheese plate, range from very good to ordinary. Zeppole al Miele–crisp puffs of pastry with a vanilla dipping sauce–were terrific. The cannoli filled with chocolate ricotta were bland.
A selection of Italian wines is available by the half glass (three ounces) or full glass (six ounces). The wine list has many good bottles in the $20-to-$30 range.
Sette Osteria is a popular restaurant. It could be a very good restaurant. The hostess is charming and efficient, but there have been complaints about food at a table being delivered at different times. Some members of the waitstaff have not been well informed about the menu and ingredients. And the kitchen needs to improve on its timing–cold pizza and cold vegetables won't win repeat customers. One assumes that these problems will be worked out. Franco Nuschese did not achieve success by ignoring his customers.
ATMOSPHERE: Stylish and energetic.
SERVICE: Generally friendly and efficient, with some glitches.
PRICE: Pastas, $12; pizzas, $8 to $12; lunchtime panini, $8; daily specials, $12 to $18. Dinner for two: $56.
WINE LIST: Italian–well selected with an eye toward value.
BOTTOM LINE: From a master restaurateur, an appealing restaurant whose shortcomings likely will be worked out.