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Garden Partying

A restaurateur serves up a grand time at his elegant estate in the city

By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page W30

Franco Nuschese's house has a respectable Washington air about it, a polite three-story abode on Upton Street NW dressed in stone and slate. Behind lies another world, a 3 1/2-acre estate that is daring, cosmopolitan -- voluptuous in its flowing terraces tailor-made for dressy parties.

Nuschese knows all about parties as the proprietor of one of the more glam watering holes in town, Cafe Milano. In the theater of celebrity, he is an impresario who has gained his own fame by knowing how to treat people like stars, even when they are not.

Lower pool terrace
Lower pool terrace
The lower pool terrace, cosseted by clipped Russian olive and a sense of Old World elegance. (Chris Hartlove)

The same silky hospitality of his Georgetown restaurant pervades his private garden parties, and the garden itself is a willing partner in this sybaritic experience.

The Post gatecrashed a summer party last July for about 20 of Nuschese's friends, including Cellina and Henry Barth, the jet-setting couple from whom he bought the house in 2002.

As a hazy day turned to dusk, the guests were drawn to the main entertaining terrace, a flagstone patio that is, in essence, a balcony, wrapped in stone, illuminated by built-in lanterns and presenting a perch to view a distant Rock Creek. But not even that view, or the easy conversation and good food and drink, could keep an inveterate garden detective on the porch. The spaces arrayed below were just too tempting, so I followed my nose.

The lower terraces incorporated a swimming pool and lawns bounded by a topiary of clipped Russian olive. At this level, I noticed that the party terrace sat on a round outbuilding, with a kitchen and pool changing room, that was arched and stuccoed, evoking a Roman grotto. The walls were softened by clematis and other climbing vines. Ambling beyond the pool, I found a path that took me down past a kitchen garden with raised beds of sweet basil and ripening tomatoes and bowers heavy with grapevines. A large tennis court was wrapped in beds of iceberg roses, and, beyond that, a long panel of turf was edged with a border of old shrubs and perennials, including many bearded irises.

What a place this must be under a full moon in late May, with the air scented with freshly mown grass and creamy roses, and the borders highlighted with irises, yarrows and daisies.

The garden was created almost 20 years ago by Cellina Barth -- who, like Nuschese, is from northern Italy -- in collaboration with Michael Bartlett, a landscape designer known for his work on large estates.

Barth's husband, Henry, is from a long line of German hops merchants. When the Barths decided to leave Washington (they have homes in Nuremberg and northern Italy), they chose to sell to Nuschese, by then a fast friend.

Cellina Barth talked about the travails of creating a garden of such scope. From a practical standpoint, it needed large quantities of fill dirt and, because Bartlett wanted to hide the tennis court and offset the swimming pool, a retaining wall that rose more than 20 feet. But more than that, the whole endeavor needed a certain courage to pull it off. "She really bought into that logic," said Bartlett. "She was very gutsy."

But how do you find a contractor willing to deliver hundreds of tons of dirt to a relatively inaccessible site? One arrived but soon balked, until the cook removed a loaf of bread from the oven. The aroma did its magic. "If I were to put my son to work here," said the contractor, "could we get some bread?"

Cellina Barth proffered four loaves, thrice weekly, "as big as you want."

Daughter-in-law Mary Barth is delighted that Nuschese has taken over the landscaping, but she recognizes that the ghost of Cellina's white garden is fading fast. The patio is festooned with reds and blues and purples to the new owner's more colorful taste. Mary Barth found it different and thrilling. "It's stunning," she said.

Many of the plantings are overgrown and in need of rejuvenation. Bartlett is back to rework the landscape, and the sunniest borders will incorporate vegetables, herbs and flowers for cutting. A new terrace is being built on each side of the house, providing gathering spaces that are less exposed and therefore cooler than the existing terrace, said Bartlett. The new west terrace will offer sunset views.

A big landscape is about to get larger. Too exuberant perhaps for most people, but not for Franco Nuschese or the gardener who inspired him.

Adrian Higgins is The Post's garden editor.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company