By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, July 4, 2004
One of the chief complaints I hear from Washington diners has nothing to do with inept service or underwhelming food, but with the paucity of affordable neighborhood restaurants. It's a frustration I share. While a person can eat very well at the top and bottom rungs of the price scale -- sources for foie gras and champagne, or a bowl of noodles washed back with tea, are relatively easy to find -- there's a yawning gap where solid, moderately priced dining rooms are concerned.
Enter Sette Osteria, which flung open its doors in Dupont Circle in February and immediately packed 'em in with a menu of pizza, pasta and wines that celebrates the goods of southern Italy. By the look of things, you could be forgiven for thinking the place was offering free tickets to the latest Harry Potter movie. On a Monday night, Sette jumps as if it were Saturday, with every table taken, and drinkers standing two and three deep at the bar. Sette's bare wood tables and hard tile floors, mixed with conversation and music, make for a lot of noise, but the restaurant feels like an event you want in on -- not unlike Cafe Milano, the glamorous Georgetown restaurant from which this trattoria sprang. Sette (pronounced set-tay) means "seven" in Italian, and it's a number its creator and co-owner Franco Nuschese considers a lucky one.
The wood-fired pizza oven catches your eye right from the door, and its output is well worth investigating. For this city's opinionated diners, the definition of "good" pizza hangs on what kind of pizza they grew up with (or grew accustomed to), so let me describe what five visits to Sette in as many months have revealed. The yeasty base of the pizza falls somewhere between thick and thin; the crust offers chew and character, thanks to skilled shaping, semolina on the bottom and a trace of soot that reminds you the pies are baked near an actual fire. The toppings (I'm partial to the four cheeses, and the more forceful combination of pork sausage, chili peppers and broccoli rabe) are doled out Italian style -- that is, with a light hand -- and underscore the kitchen's knack for finding good ingredients. A single pizza, or the bountiful tomato salad with two colors of tomato, makes a memorable shared appetizer, and either is a better introduction than some of the other first courses, including the greasy, chewy fried calamari or the potato cake, which is dry but somewhat brightened with roasted red peppers.
Pasta, initially the only other major food lure at Sette -- at least until Atkins and other dieters encouraged the restaurant to add meat and fish entrees -- is less consistent. At its best, Sette dishes out very good spaghetti scattered with shrimp, scallops and squid, and moistened with a light garlicky broth; or fettuccine that looks and tastes made from scratch, tossed with pancetta, onion and slivers of zucchini. And the lasagna, presented in a clay dish, proves lighter than most, with soft meatballs hidden between layers of wide noodles whose edges are crisped from the heat of the oven. But there can be flops, too, such as agnolotti stuffed with rabbit and draped in pesto. What reads well on the menu doesn't translate on the plate: The rabbit filling crunches with bits of cartilage, and the sauce is too thick and too creamy, a heavy quilt rather than a light covering.
A waiter who introduces himself as "Giuseppe" to my friends and me one night makes a strong case that food isn't everything when it comes to dining out. An animated presence, he seeks to bond with us right from the start: "I'll take special care of you!" he promises -- and then delivers. "Giuseppe" practically insists that one of us get braciola as an entree and goes on to suggest the wines we should try. But he stops short of overselling the kitchen; he is not, he confides, a fan of Sette's cheesecake. And his real name isn't Giuseppe, he informs us mid-meal. Why the charade? Well, he's a Tunisian working in an Italian place, he explains, and his birth name, Mounir, is too hard for people to remember. The point is, his enthusiastic performance and attention to detail almost make us forget that the eggplant Parmesan is spongy and bitter, and that the TV above the bar (admittedly, a staple of many Washington restaurants) is annoying. Mounir is not the only one here who seems to be enjoying his job. The hosts, dashing in their dark suits, add a touch of panache to this busy picture.
That braciola is divine. Thin slices of beef are bundled with parsley and Parmesan, marinated in herbs and red wine, slowly cooked in tomato sauce, then presented with fingers of soft potato and verdant broccoli rabe. Other entrees, though, leave lesser impressions. Chicken, pounded to the dimensions of this magazine page and doing a great imitation of pita bread, is floppy, dry and juiceless. And while a mixed grill of fish reels in shrimp, octopus and more, it all tastes pretty ordinary.
Sette's street-corner location gives it a couple of advantages over the competition, including wide windows that allow you to people-watch from either side of the glass and a sidewalk patio to accommodate the crowd as the weather permits. The restaurant's long hours mean waiters from other establishments tend to gravitate here after their shifts elsewhere. (As the waiter with two names noted, after midnight "the tips are good!") Thoughtful little details abound, such as colorful pillows to soften the hard seats and wines poured by the half-glass as well as the standard six ounces.
You might not have space for dessert. Not to worry. Creme brulee is burdened by a too-thick cover of caramelized sugar, while tiramisu comes flavored with limoncello, transforming that espresso- and chocolate-spiked classic into something closer to a cake flavored with melted lemon drops. It is not an improvement. The most refreshing finish turns out to be a liquid one: an orange liqueur redolent of citrus and anise, offered in a frosted shot glass. It is small and sweet, just like Sette.