Franco Nuschese, the owner of Georgetown’s possibly-too-chic-for-its-own-good staple, Café Milano, and DuPont’s new-ish Sette Osteria, wanted to leave the city and tackle the less formal suburban market with a more unconventional assortment of Italian fare. Unconventional, that is, for American (and particularly DC) tastes. To promote this new venture, Franco’s friend and AU professor Gemma Puglisi assigned her senior business undergrads to be Sette Bello’s PR machine. Two of her students contacted me (hi Tony and Rob!), and set me up to talk with corporate chef Domenico Cornacchia and later with Franco, who invited me along to try out his new place.
Sette Bello opened in Clarendon this October, to less fanfare than one might expect, but judging from the crowd on its second Thursday of operation, enough fanfare indeed. I had a bit of trouble finding the entrance, which is not actually on Wilson Blvd., but on Highland Street – maybe the suburbs are just too complicated for this city boy. It is more or less directly across the street from the Clarendon Metro, which makes it super-convenient. For the ‘burbs.
The entrance leads to a square foyer, where a cheery hostess and manager Brian Scott greeted me, apologized that Franco was stuck in traffic, and escorted me to the bar. This place is bloody huge. The bar is very pretty, but due to its size and highly styled appearance, feels a bit cold and sterile. Amazingly, it is not as noisy as I’d expect such a cavernous space to be.
I sat at the very pretty bar, and ordered a Sapphire martini, because, well, it’d been a rough day. The martini was served in its own shaker – you shake and pour your own – which is cute, but very messy. Condensation quickly soaked my cocktail napkin, and made pouring the second time more difficult. I drank my martini(s), and ate some tasty olives provided as bar snacks (no peanuts here). The bar staff is lovely; they seem to be having fun. Rumor, however, has it that they may not be.
Franco arrived midway through my cocktail adventures, and instructed a host to bring me over to his table when I’m ready. I finish my drink, pay up – cough$16plustipcough – I expect to pay $8-10 for that drink in Dupont, and Clarendon is ever so not Dupont. Yes, you could call it two martinis, since it certainly filled the glass twice, but I didn’t order – or, frankly, want – two martinis.
Sitting at the bar, I did not partake of Sette Bello’s main gimmick – “Italian Sushi” – which would be better recognized and more appetizing to me if it were just called “crudo” like in normal places, but from what I saw at other tables, it did look really good. Particularly intriguing were the Ostriche con Limon – oysters prettily arranged on a large shell with lemon confit – and the lovely looking Trittico di Salmone – a trio of cured and tartare salmon, with salmon roe and salsa verde. An interesting note is that Franco doesn’t like (Japanese) sushi. Adamantly so, in fact. Crudo is very different than sushi, and it is the kind of food Franco and Domenico remember from their native Italy. Why they needed to use the word ‘sushi,’ when ‘crudo’ would have been crystal clear, is a mystery for the ages. Or the PR department. Either way, I would’ve been happy to try any of it. I just didn’t.
3101 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22201
After settling up at the bar, I was led by an eager young hostess back to the main dining room, which makes sort of an “L” with the bar area, and is really ginormous. It’s a bit gaping, and consequently cold, but I don’t find it as unwelcoming as Rockwell does. I also didn’t notice the surveillance camera, which would have really bothered me and, retrospectively, really does bother me. The booth Franco and I shared was comfy, with a pretty distressed copper-colored tabletop. The plates have a very pretty but vaguely Oriental look about them. They are very pretty, but I’m not sure why they are here.
Franco is very genial, and seems quite excited to share his new place. He’s also always ‘on’ – selling his restaurant to me, hassling his servers, and greeting other friends of his who were there for dinner. That’s his job, and he’s very good at it; it just struck me as funny. He came to DC over 15 years ago to open a restaurant for someone else, but now Sette Bello is the third in his own restaurant empire. He says that coming to a restaurant should be almost like going to theater – a good show. He’s rough on his servers, even (perhaps especially?) with me at the table. The ones tending our table are lovely, attentive (Franco is the boss, after all), and one was also damn cute. Cute waiters who give good counsel on my orders go very far in my world; more on that later.
Franco selected the wine, Terruzzi Terre Di Tufi, and ordered a platter of cold cuts for us to share. The wine was quite nice, light and crisp with some apple to it. It pairs beautifully with the cold cuts, which I highly recommend, if only for the ubriacone, a gorgeous cheese that’s aged in fermented grapes. The other remarkable cheese was a light (in texture), sweet, powerful gorgonzola.
For starters, I did have a raw dish: tuna tartare with fennel and jalapenos. I know, déjà dull, but I figured I’d try something for which I had a fair basis of comparison. It was really good – fresh, sweet and tangy…I am a sucker for fennel.
My main course was the Cappelli – round pastas with ‘buttons’ in the middle filled with a bright pink pureed beets, dressed in a very tasty gorgonzola sauce. Again, this was really nice. The portion felt small, but only because the tuna had been fairly large; it was, realistically, a perfect size. The pasta itself is butter, rich, and just a touch al dente. Fraco ordered something from the chef, and while it looked and smelled good, it isn’t on the menu, so I won’t discuss it here.
Then, there was dessert. Looking at them menu, I again decided to go with something for which I had a basis of comparison: the tartufo. The cute waiter took my order, but smiled and said that while he would bring me that, he also wanted permission to bring me something else: the gianduiotto alle nocciole. I agreed, much to Franco’s
contentmentglee. I also ordered an espresso.
The desserts arrived with the espresso. Not after the espresso, not before: at the same time. This seems to be a problem at 90% of the places I go. The espresso is bitter and thick, but light on crema. Whatever, as it is caffeinated, I’m happy. The tartufo is, like everything else, beautifully presented, with a candy garnish sort of like a model galaxy sitting on top. The thing itself, unfortunately, is unremarkable. Not bad – it’s really hard to make anything with chocolate bad – but nothing I’d order again. I stopped after a few bites to try the gianduiotto. I understand fully why the waiter insisted that I try it: a write-up ending with that tartufo is guaranteed to be lukewarm at best. This, however, Is. A. Bloody. Good. Dessert. Chocolate, nuttiness, and some more chocolate.
My feelings on Sette Bello are mixed, which is pretty rare for me. I feel I really ought to go back, especially now that they’ve been open a while, which is part of why I took so long to publish this, but I haven’t. Nothing I had was not good, and some of it (the cappelli, the gianduiotto) was excellent. It’s not even that it’s too expensive – despite the ridiculous martini
mortgage valueprice, the food menu is not unreasonably priced. My cappelli was listed as $15 (for the record, Franco generously picked up my tab, which only affects my opinions in as much as I had a wine and second espresso I would not otherwise have had). I really want to like this place – I love crudo, and I love pasta, and I don’t mind the cold, gaping space as much as I expected to, since it’s not too loud. But, I think it’s the greatness/distance question: if I lived in Clarendon, I would probably have been back a number of times.
I recommend Sette Bello to those in the mood for something a bit different in their Italian restauranting, especially if you’re already on that side of the river. They menu will change seasonally, and so next time there may be new and exciting options on it. I’m sure I’ll be back there at some point, but must admit I’m unlikely to really go out of my way for it.