Hollywood on the Potomac: Cafe Milano Turns 25

A look back on years of refined cooking, warm hospitality and the best people watching.

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keeper of the gate Laurent Menoud tells us that catering a birthday lunch for Pope Benedict XVI was “one of the greatest days of my life.”The 81st birthday celebration for His Holiness fell on April 16, 2008 at the Embassy of the Holy See during the Pontiff’s visit to the Nation’s capital. “I’ve met many movie stars, sports celebrities and heads of state, but there is only one Pope,” Milano proprietor  says of the occasion for which he personally crafted every detail, going so far as to fly to his hometown of Minori, Italy to design hand-painted plates with the Vatican logo at the center. On the menu? Braised veal cheeks, baby spring vegetables and purple mashed potatoes. And yes, like all good Catholics, Nuschese knelt down and kissed the papal ring.

While that kind of day is not a typical step- and-repeat at Cafe Milano, it comes close in other ways.The Italian eatery has been running on adrenaline in the heart of Georgetown since it opened in November 1992. The ambiance is part elegance, part circus, part buttoned up and somehow amid the chaos, part relaxed. In 2017 the restaurant’s team celebrates 25 years of phenomenal success. As popular Democratic political operative Tommy Quinn put it: Milano is “still the only game in town.”

The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons recalls being at a Milano dinner honoring Joanna Coles as the new editor-and-chief of Cosmopolitan. “Walking by was Colin Powell in one room, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in another – and then Senator John Kerry sitting out front.”Working his social magic, Clemons “got all three to stop in to hang. It’s that kind of place,” he says.

“Franco knew instinctively how to promote Cafe Milano,” says Washington Life Senior Editor Kevin Chaffee, who co-hosted parties there for George Plimpton, Dominick Dunne and the Martha Graham Dance Company. “It quickly became the gathering place for Washington insiders and visiting VIPs and has remained so for 25 years.”

You’re likely to cross paths with interesting people on almost any given day.The hordes of “A” listers would make The Green Book jealous. And that doesn’t even include the Hollywood celebrities like Renee Zellweger, Jon Voight, Eva Longoria and Harvey Weinstein. Then there’s the “Cooper Watch,” as in Bradley Cooper, who spends a lot of time at Milano since he went to college at Georgetown University. According to rumor, he worked there for a time as a waiter.We would have tipped him double.

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James D’Orta, Franco Nuschese and George Hamilton in 1998.

Hafizah Shahryar was first introduced to Cafe Milano when her late husband Ishaq was appointed ambassador of Afghanistan. Notable memories include dinner with Queen Noor of Jordan and the late Benazir Bhutto‘s surprise 50th birthday party.We remember the night when then President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai rolled up in a convoy of black SUVs after a lavish party at his embassy, followed by President Bill Clinton – just another night on Prospect Street.

Former Chief of Protocol Lloyd Hand and his jewelry designer wife Ann practically live there, falling into the category of Milano regulars. They remember their momentous 60th wedding anniversary celebration and the launch of Ann’s Italian perfume, “Ann Hand’s Power.” “The unique atmosphere that Franco and Laurent have created has an international appeal,” she says, “attracting diplomats from around the world as well as top government officials.”

Former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen and his television host wife Janet Langhart have been seen with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta JonesMorgan Freeman, Quincy Jones and Rima Al-Sabah. “I love to people watch,” Cohen says. “I always see someone I’ve met on my international travels.”

For others like founder of Innocents at Risk Deborah Sigmund, it’s a family gathering place as much a solid dining option. Sigmund speaks for many social Washingtonians when she says, “I don’t know what we would do without Cafe Milano!” Publicist Shelley Hymes feels the same level of comfort. She held her birth- day party in Milano’s Domingo Room, named after world tenor Placido Domingo. “After all the new restaurants that have come and gone Milano still feels like home,” she says.

Young reporters are known to flock to Milano for a taste of old school Washington they can’t find at newly trendy hangouts. Plus, it’s a hot bed for celebrity gossip.Washington Post editorial columnist Jonathan Capehart recently hosted a viewing party there for his round on “Jeopardy!” during Power Players Week. Jay Newton-Small TIME magazine political correspondent and author of “Broad Influence” was feted at a book party in her honor hosted by Juleanna Glover, Giovanna Lockhart, Chris and Kathleen Matthews, Heather Podesta, Michael Scherer, Kimball Stroud and Brian Wolff.

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Franco Nuschese, Tiger Woods and Bob Johnson at Tiger Woods’ Luncheon in 2012. (Photo by Tony Powell)

Naturally, it is a favorite of visitors from Nuschese’s native Italy. Italian President Sergio Mattarella lunched at Cafe Milano with his Foreign Minister Paolo  Gentiloni  and former Italian Ambassador to the U.S. Claudio Bisogniero on President’s Day. The Italian leader was in town for a meeting with President Obama as part of his week-long tour of the United States. No stop in Washington is complete without the allure of Nuschese’s famed dining salon.

The National Italian American Foundation hosts a dinner there during its annual gala weekend. We remember sitting in the same room as Sophia Loren and Gina Lolobrigida some years back. Other celebrity guests at the dinner have included Joey “Pants” Pantoliano, Deana Martin and Barbara Sinatra. It’s where Danny DeVito insisted we drink more. It’s where Yogi Berra explained that his famous line “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” was not some great philosophical point. It’s where we’ve dined elbow-to-elbow with Dion DiMuccia of Dion and the Belmonts.

Cafe Milano is the first place talk show host Rita Cosby goes when she’s in town. “The atmosphere,” she says, “is always electric.” And it doesn’t hurt that she once boogied on the dance floor with Michael Jordan.

“You often see Republicans and Democrats who have just left a sparring match on TV earlier, sharing a few glasses of Merlot at the bar right after,” Cosby says.

Last year we caught up with Kira Kazantsev and Nina Davuluri – Miss America 2015 and 2014 respectively – at a luncheon in their honor where the twosome exchanged pageant experiences with summer camp-like excitement.

In charge of the nightly parade is manager Menoud. Though he has Open Table as a resource, he prefers controlling chaos the old fashioned way: “a floor chart and a pencil between juggling phone calls and using my mental Rolodex.” He says that he probably has the names and associated table preferences of a thousand guests ingrained in his memory. “Every client wants the best real estate tablewise. You need to be quick in making decisions, very discrete about your clientele and have a lot of patience.” His favorite guest was the late King Hussein of Jordan, whom he referred to as being “very humble.”

We caught up with Nuschese, who is working on his newest venture, opening a Milano in Abu Dhabi. “It is not just another restaurant for me.” Nuschese says, fondly comparing his restaurant to a child.“You should go with him, teach him new things, follow his growth, correct his mistakes, love him.” From our vantage point he has done a spectacular job rearing his restaurant into a celebrity- studded stomping ground.

“Life can be stressful and challenging.The highest luxury that life holds for us is definitely that of time … quality time,” Nuschese says. “To know that people choose to spend their moments of relaxation at Cafe Milano fills me with pride but also with great responsibility. In Italy, we used to say ‘l’ospite è sacro’: in our home, a guest is sacred. My greatest aspiration is to create for guests a little oasis of relaxation.”

Mission accomplished, we say. Michelle Obama celebrated her birthday there. As one journalist told us, “When the President goes to Cafe Milano, you know he has arrived.”

This article appeared in the December 2016 issue of Washington Life. 

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