First, the location: Villa Franco's address the site of the old Bice is listed as 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. But its entrance is on Indiana Avenue, near Seventh Street.
Then there are the prices: If you order between 5:30 and 7 p.m., you can dine on a grand four-course meal for $20, and it can include some of the city's best fried calamari, house-made pasta, a fish or chicken entree and a lush lemon tiramisu. On the a la carte menu, you could pay $45 for the double veal chop alone.
And the extras: I've never seen a restaurant more eager to push its $6 bottled water or more assiduous in topping off the glasses and opening new bottles, simply assuming you'll want another. And if your group chooses several pastas to share as appetizers, you might think the waiter understood you were ordering half portions, only to find when the bill comes that they were full portions.
One evening while a guest waited for me at the bar, he noticed a collection of grappas on display. He ordered one. The bartender asked which he wanted.
"Which is the least expensive?" inquired my guest.
"They're all the same price."
That price turned out to be $18 a shot, as my guest discovered only when he paid the tab.
If you don't fall prey to sticker shock, Villa Franco is a vital and exciting place to dine. It's run by Franco Nuschese, who was the first maitre d' at Bice, then went on to start up Cafe Milano in Georgetown. Now he's back where he began, this time as the boss, and serving the tomato- and garlic-scented food of his home ground, the Amalfi coast.
Even more evocative than the smells and tastes at Villa Franco are the colors. They're inspired, they're welcoming, they shimmer like a stretch of coastline. Walk past the umbrella-topped tables outside and enter the bar, and you'll find that inside it's a sparkling lime-colored day. The main dining room is an oceanic, tropical blue with cool white stone columns and flooring, hinting of sun-bleached sand and Mediterranean palazzi.
The woodwork suggests restored antiquity, and cushioned metal chairs handsomely (if not quite comfortably) capture the theme. The service, too, is given to classical flourishes whole fish filleted tableside, every entree presented for inspection as if you were choosing gems. At the end of dinner, iced bottles of syrupy liqueurs are poured into tiny glasses to accompany a plate of tiny cookies. If what you're paying for is service, you're getting your money's worth. If you're looking for an evening made to seem important, it's here.
Villa Franco plays at being a setting for emperors. Mostly, though, it gets senators. And even more often, their aides. When Congress is in session, the evening can grow raucous with table-hopping, a constant steam of handshakes and greetings reverberating across the room. It starts to sound like a house party, albeit one so glamorous that you're bound to spot at least one bottle blonde wearing backless leopard skin.
At one table, every one of the men was served a double veal chop as his entree. It's nearly twice the price of the other entrees and so much meat that when I ordered it to share, we still had plenty to take home. Which we did, since it was too spectacular and juicy a slab of meat to waste. You can order a single chop for a mere $26, but if you can find a partner, the veal is all the better for being grilled double-thick.
That's the best entree in the house. By far. The other big seller among the regulars is a showy whole fish red snapper, Dover sole, sea bream, bass or white snapper most often grilled but also available roasted or poached. It's more exciting on the platter than on your palate, though, especially if the waiter forgets to offer the herbed olive oil to dress it. The fish I've tried, even in the company of good broccoli rabe and artichokes, have been plump and beautiful but uniformly bland.
What about all those more elaborately garnished entrees? Lamb chops with wild mushrooms, herbs and olives are just fine, but poached fish fillets with mussels and clams or with fresh spaghetti are soggy, bony, even mushy. If you must have beef, the tenderloin will do, but the beef scaloppine is as chewy and firm as those $5 steaks in Mexican cafes. Grilled shrimp or sometimes langoustines are fragrant and moist, but the langoustines have been, like the fish, mushy. There's one entree worth straying from the veal for, and it is not for the squeamish: the tomato-and olive-spiked baby octopus stew.
Like its Cafe Milano sibling, Villa Franco composes colorful and impeccable salads beets with asparagus and frisee, spinach with radishes and dry ricotta, artichokes with Parmesan. In addition to fried appetizers mozzarella or a wonderful mixed seafood the list runs to grilled octopus or sardines, seafood stew and eggplant parmigiana that's free of breading and lighter than most. The pastas sound far from ordinary cavatelli with zucchini and favas, cappellacci with crab and clams, strascinati with meat ragout. Yet their execution isn't nearly as appealing as their descriptions; the pastas tend to be heavy-handed and grainy rather than supple, their sauces pedestrian.
A massive veal chop or a whole fish doesn't leave room for much more dessert than a little sorbet, but what sorbets! They're rough and icy, more like granitas. Sometimes they come in such improbable flavors as tomato or basil and don't prejudge; they're lovely. Prosecco wine sorbet is delicate and refreshing, watermelon has a heavier perfume. Sorbets as well as the fine ice creams are dramatically presented in bowls made of filmy pastry. All the desserts go an extra step; there's that soft, luscious tiramisu flavored with lemon, and sometimes the chef even undertakes the fascinating flaky-chewy ricotta-filled pastry called sfogliatelle.
The dessert plates are artistry in chocolate and custard, just as the entree platters are abundant arrangements of meats or fish with their vegetable garnishes. Everything at Villa Franco is served with such flair that flaws are hardly noticed or soon forgotten. Franco Nuschese understands the value of style. This time he's dressed up and given a make-over to an old favorite: red-sauce southern Italian cooking.
Villa Franco 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202/638-2423. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $13, entrees $11 to $17.50; dinner appetizers $6 to $16.50, entrees $13 to $45. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $50 to $80 per person.
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