Cafe Milano

$$$$ ($25-$34)

Editorial Review

2014 Spring Dining Guide

Starry nights

Tom Sietsema

May 15, 2014

Even some regulars will tell you that Cafe Milano, 21, is more about the clientele than the cucina, but my last dinner in the Georgetown ristorante helps explain why Le Diplomate in Logan Circle has become the club of choice for most VIPs and wannabes to see and be scene. The French hotspot is nice to you even if you’re an unknown diner, and its food tastes like what you might actually find in Paris. Sometimes snooty, Cafe Milano hands diners an overpriced wine list ahead of serving them some depressing food: thick, tasteless veal Milanese that’s not the least bit crisp, and branzino that’s void of flavor, so finish your nicely cooked baby vegetables. Then fill up on the fried calamari mixed with crisp zucchini coins for contrast. And try not to stare at CNN’s Wolf Blitzer or Secretary of State John Kerry, among the boldfaced names that still pop in. Lobster crudo is pleasant enough; truffle-flavored ice cream is better than it sounds. The server may put in a plug for some pasta prepared tableside, which feels like an upsell yet turns out to be the highlight of the evening: hot, house-made tagliatelle stirred around the bowl of a big wheel of Parmesan. Simple and satisfying, it could use more company.

Diversity is a goal in more than personnel offices and residential neighborhoods. It's a useful objective for restaurants nowadays, too, as Cafe Milano shows. The place is best known as a noisy, fashion-themed late-night hangout for the young, the rich and the beautiful who nibble, at most, on a few leaves of arugula. In the bright light of day, though, it works equally well for quiet business lunches or sociable Georgetown salad-and-mineral-water get-togethers. Early dinners draw a sedate crowd seeking serious Italian cooking. The remarkable thing is that one menu fits all.

That's because the food is so Italian, so straightforward a showcase for excellent ingredients and the magic of simplicity. It's as light as you wish, sparkling with flavor and as colorful and lovely as the designer neckties that decorate the walls. If all you want is a salad or a plate of paper-thin raw meat or fish, you'll find the quality high and the preparation flawless. Pizzas and pastas reach beyond cliches yet remain pure. A toss of shrimp, asparagus and diced raw tomato with just a little olive oil dresses wiry golden tagliolini. The agnolotti dough might be disappointingly heavy, but its spinach filling is light, its pureed squash sauce more so. And if you're primed for a meal of substance, there are grand starters, my favorite a grill-crisped squid with potatoes, onions and olives. Entrees include a wide choice of fish, veal and, richest of all, grilled liver garnished by an onion stuffed with creamy risotto.

Cafe Milano shows that fashion can be long-lived and serve all ages. It never neglects substance for style.