This is what happens at Cafe Milano:
You enter the Georgetown restaurant and the manager behind the desk smiles broadly, flipping his mental Rolodex for your name. Owner Franco Nuschese hovers near the door, greeting regulars and newcomers alike as old friends. You scan the tables near the front and see at least one acquaintance, one celebrity, one multimillionaire and dozens of wannabe or wanna-be-married to one of the above.
What started 10 years ago as a casual Italian restaurant for European students has evolved into the hangout for Washington society -- a unique conjunction of businessmen, socialites, media, diplomats, politicians and stars. Yes, that's Michael Jordan casually puffing a cigar. Placido Domingo just arrived with the Spanish ambassador. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe is (as usual) on his cell phone. "Sex and the City" actress Kim Cattrall dropped by earlier this month (looking good, but not as good as Sophia Loren did when she was here in October). As with the late Jockey Club, almost every famous name who comes through Washington shows up here.
The mood is relaxed, sexy, intimate. It's home away from home for the smart set.
"Whenever I have friends in town from L.A., I always bring them here," says BET founder Bob Johnson. "To me, this is the most sophisticated place in Washington, D.C. It's 'Cheers' with a cosmopolitan atmosphere. That's what makes it work."
How does one restaurant become the restaurant? Food, service, location all factor into the equation, as do luck, timing, and tastes. But Nuschese's greatest gift is understanding that everybody wants to be treated like a star -- especially the stars.
Johnson breezed into Cafe Milano for dinner a couple of weeks ago, something he's been doing for years. He's great pals with Nuschese. (When Johnson was looking for a Ferrari convertible last year, it was Nuschese who hooked him up with a dealer in Germany.)
Now Johnson as a regular customer is obviously great for word of mouth, for creating that all-important buzz. He brought in Denzel Washington for lunch and as the NBA's newest owner he might swing by with a player or two.
Why? "I know all the guys here," he says. "This is family. They take care of me in ways you only do for family: anything you want, any hour you want."
You're thinking: Heck, if I was a billionaire, I'd get anything I wanted, too. But the reason the place is cooking, the reason the bar area is SRO and the tables full at 11 p.m., is that Franco Nuschese tries to give everybody a little VIP treatment.
For first-time customers, that means a polite greeting, no attitude and an attempt to seat quickly and at a decent table. "Never lie to people," he tells his staff. "Do the best we can." For regulars, it means a warm welcome, remembering names, stopping by the table to schmooze. "People want to feel special," says Nuschese. "People want to feel comfortable."
Real estate investor Joe Robert made Milano his place a few years ago, following a lifelong pattern: Anytime he moved, he would look for an Italian restaurant nearby where he liked the proprietor, liked the food, and could get in and out quickly without reservations.
When he settled in McLean, he found that he could drive from his home to Cafe Milano in 10 minutes, walk in and have a good time -- no planning required. It quickly became his Party Central: He hosted a dinner for Colombian President Andres Pastrana; he took over the entire place for his company's 20th anniversary party with the Temptations; he threw a surprise going-away party for his older son, Joe, who was joining the Marines.
Robert dines at Milano a couple times a month -- sometimes with his wife, Jill, sometimes with his infant son, Luke, sometimes with pals.
"It's the family restaurant," he says. "So you have a network of 'family.' For me, I know I can go there any night without a reservation and sit and have dinner with friends, without ever knowing who's going to be there. I think that's the major attraction for lots of people who come there."
Cafe Milano has become what the late great Jockey Club used to be: Washington's scene restaurant.
"It has the club atmosphere that's been missing in town since the Jockey Club and Duke Zeibert's closed," says Kevin Chaffee, who hosted book parties for George Plimpton and Dominick Dunne at Milano. "The only comparison now is the Palm. You can take an out-of-town guest to Cafe Milano and even they might see someone they know."
Many of the Jockey Club regulars, in fact, migrated to Cafe Milano. Washington's social lionesses nibble next to high-tech baby moguls. Diplomats bring high-level visiting officials. Word of mouth has made it a must for hip tourists from far-flung ports of call. JoAnn Mason, chairman of the opera's Camerata Patron Program, frequently hosts lunches for opera casts. "The singers are often from other countries and they seem to enjoy the casual atmosphere and the wonderful food," she says. When the Masons' daughter was married in June -- the groom's family and friends were from Europe -- it was the natural choice for the rehearsal dinner. And after 11 p.m., the tanned and toned drift in, flashing Rolexes and pheromones.
"It's a sexy place," says writer Diana McLellan. "The Jockey Club was never sexy. People dress up. It's very Italian. You can wear your white leather there and not feel like a fool."
McLellan (not wearing white leather) launched her book "The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood" with a party at the restaurant. It is, she says, the first choice when confronted with, "Where should we go for -- "
She ticks off the reasons why: It's expensive enough so that it acts as a filter, but not too expensive. (Dinner for two with wine runs $100 or so.) It's open late. (You can get something to eat until 1 a.m.) The bar is nice: "Not too many politicians, so it's not like the hustling steak places near the Capitol." And the light is flattering and bright enough: "You can see everybody."
Which, of course, is really the point of a place like this. To see -- and be seen:
Bill and Hillary Clinton, out for a rare dinner together. Jordan's King Abdullah and Queen Rania having lunch. Michael Jordan with agent David Falk and coach John Thompson. NBC's Tom Brokaw with Campbell Brown. "Monday Night Football" hosts John Madden and Al Michaels. Ecuador's former ambassador, Ivonne A-Baki, with Jim Kimsey, Queen Noor, Madeleine Albright, and Jack Kemp. Susan Mary Alsop, Deeda Blair, Polly Kraft, Letitia Baldrige, Christopher Hitchens, Evan Thomas, Chris Wallace, Lucky Roosevelt, Ann Stock, Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing at the book parties for Dunne.
So when Cellina Fuchs Barth threw a dinner for Queen Sirikit of Thailand this fall, she picked Cafe Milano.
"I think it was the only place that the magic atmosphere could be achieved," says Barth, who hosted the black-tie dinner for 80 guests with her husband, German businessman Henry Barth. Cellina was born in Italy and wanted someplace with "a flair, a certain way of being that is not easy to duplicate. It's not 'I would like to be Italian.' It's 'I'm Italian.' I was looking for something that would not be pompous, something genuine but highly sophisticated."
The restaurant was closed to the public, and lavishly appointed with flowers. The queen was feted with Italian food, Italian wine and American song. "She did enjoy it tremendously," says Barth. Even the notoriously difficult crown prince was pleased. Barth received a call the next morning from a member of the royal entourage who told her: "It was the first time he did not complain."
There are a number of reasons for Cafe Milano's success. The restaurant is located on Prospect Street in the heart of Georgetown just off Wisconsin Avenue, with a parking lot across the street and garage next door that makes it easy for customers to zip in and out. It boasts an open-air patio (packed in the summer. tented for the holidays), a cozy floor plan, private dining rooms, and lighting soft enough to make everyone look better. The menu is simple and customers are content even if reviewers are put off by the scene.
Zagat 2003 has this listing: " 'VIP Worlds collide' at this Georgetown Italian 'scene' where 'Soprano' sorts meet 'Sex and the City' wanna-bes: the 'young and famous' are fawned over (and seated in the coveted downstairs room) by the 'showy' staff, while mere mortals are shuttled to the 'quiet' alcove upstairs, but wherever your table, you'll dine on 'surprisingly good' food; even if detractors are 'annoyed' by the 'attitude,' voyeurs 'love the excitement and energy.' "
By far the biggest asset, however, is Nuschese himself.
"Franco is wonderful," says McLellan. "Not only smooth as silk, but also he has an underpinning of gravitas that I think is very charming. You have the sense that he is a serious man beneath everything."
He is, at the very least, a serious businessman, restaurateur and astute student of human nature. Born in Minori, Italy, the 41-year-old Nuschese cut his professional teeth in London restaurants, then spent nine years working at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He came to Washington in 1991 to run Bice, a formal Italian restaurant. It was there that a regular customer, Benetton franchise owner Iraklis Karabassis, tipped him off to a small space in Georgetown and offered to become a partner in a new restaurant.
"I always felt that this town needed a place where people didn't just go for the food and the service; a place where people really found themselves comfortable -- not limited to the menu, the hours, the way they had to dress," he says. "A place that was casual and elegant -- and a place where you can have fun. If you want to come to Cafe Milano and you do not want to wear a suit, you should be able to come. You want to wear jeans? Fine. You want to come after the opera in a tux, you should not feel uncomfortable."
He thought he could attract locals from Georgetown who wanted a simple dinner, and students. He designed a menu that was equally flexible -- pizza, salads and pasta, as well as the fancier fare. The floors are terra cotta, the chairs simple. Because Karabassis was from Milan's fashion industry, and Nuschese collects ties, there's a map of Milan's Metro on the ceiling, and framed ties and designer scarves on the walls.
Cafe Milano opened in November 1992 -- the same day Bill Clinton was elected president. ("Of course, we have something in common," says Nuschese with a grin. "We both opened November third.") After the first two nights, something clicked inside of him and he thought to himself: "We can be more than I thought we could be -- the place had such a great energy. This is a wild animal to run."
For a while, he tried to juggle work both here and in Las Vegas, where his ex-wife and 11-year-old son live. He opened and closed two other Washington restaurants, in Chevy Chase and downtown. Four years ago, he turned his full attention to Cafe Milano -- and the place went through the roof.
"Franco has made a huge effort to know everyone in town," says Chaffee. "Everyone gets very territorial. He caters to his family of customers amazingly well, the same way any great maitre d' or owner does."
All customers are equal, of course, but some are a bit more equal than others.
Placido Domingo and his wife, Marta, first went to the restaurant because they'd heard it was the in place to go. He loved everything but the noise: the music, the din of the crowd. "This place is marvelous, but my ears and voice, after a day of rehearsal, need more quiet," he told Nuschese. He pointed to the entry of a smaller dining room off the main dining area. "Why don't they put a door there?"
Three days later he came in, and there was a door and a sign above it: The Domingo Room.
When Nuschese expanded the restaurant two years ago, he enlarged the room with frescoes of Domingo's most famous roles and installed a life-size canvas of the tenor in "Le Cid" on the ceiling. "It's totally closed off and separate and good for small parties of 20 people," says Domingo. "I'm very grateful, very happy that he made it so beautiful."
Need we say that the opera star is now a devoted regular? He'll show up at midnight for a post-performance dinner, sometimes alone, sometimes with a dozen people.
At Domingo's birthday party last year, it was Colin Powell who sang "Happy Birthday" to the maestro.
Secretary of state. World famous opera star. Just another night at Milano.