Wednesday, May 18, 2005

“You don’t go to Cafe Milano for the food,” a hip young acquaintance tells me, “you go for the scene.” How right she is.

It’s quite a scene, especially at dinner, when society wannabes, passe minor royalty and tourists crowd into the Georgetown eatery. The trendy young things are all represented, and smoking cigars is allowed in the bar area.

Sometimes there are so many wannabes trying to be seen that the management puts a red cord across the entrance and only a privileged few are allowed to enter.

Even having a reservation doesn’t mean you have an advantage. On a recent Wednesday night, we had a firm reservation and had to wait (standing) more than a half-hour for a table. No one offered us a conciliatory chair or drink. When we left for another restaurant, the manager was pleased, not disappointed.

Cafe Milano has been on Potomac Street in Georgetown for several years. Originally, it was a relatively quiet place that served good pasta and a delicious appetizer of marinated anchovies. The carpaccio was good, and so was the service. Cafe Milano was renovated and expanded, and suddenly it was crowded, noisy and hot — as in hot-hot.

In fact, you can go for the food, particularly at lunch, when the scene is not quite so hectic and the waiters are less frantic. You might still see glitterati at lunch, primarily female, but that’s the time to go for the food rather than the scene. The cooking, although uneven, can be very good.

Lunch and dinner menus are basically identical, except for the price, which is less dear at lunch. An excellent starter is a dish of seared sea scallops that have been wrapped in a sliver of pancetta (Italian bacon) and served on a bed of crisp fried shredded potatoes in a light ragout of sliced fresh artichoke bottoms. It’s delicious and filling and would have been perfect had it not been for oversalting of the potatoes.

There was too much arugula and not enough beef in a traditional first course of tenderloin carpaccio, although the beef was first-quality. The dish is topped with two paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese. Cafe Milano also serves a carpaccio of warm beef with buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, as well as tuna carpaccio with green-peppercorn sour cream and a vegetable carpaccio of marinated zucchini slices.

Pizzas are available at lunch and dinner and make pleasant starters. A white pizza (described as “focaccia” on the menu) with rosemary and olive oil, served with a dish of chopped tomatoes, makes a light and subtle, yet tasty, beginning to an Italian meal.

The menu offers eight pastas and three risottos as well as a pasta of the day. On a recent visit, the pasta del giorno was a delicious combination of excellent house-made egg fettuccine in a light sauce of two kinds of sausages — sliced and crumbled — slivered artichokes, leeks and a little olive oil.

Risotto Ferre, a seafood risotto incorporating lobster, disappointed. Although the rice was a proper risotto al dente, the lobster and the shrimp were tough. For $29, a rice dish, even including a lobster tail, should be nothing less than perfect.

Main courses include four or five fish dishes and eight meat dishes, half of which are available at lunch, including a Milanese veal chop (pounded and breaded), a roasted veal chop and a pounded and grilled veal chop. Duck, lamb and beef round out the menu, as well as daily specials.

Among the fish offerings of sea bass, cod and Dover sole, the sauteed jumbo shrimp with baby artichokes and zucchini blossoms was an excellent choice, although the shrimp could have been cooked a few seconds less. The fresh baby artichoke halves are grilled and delicious. The dish arrived without the promised zucchini blossoms, an omission quickly corrected by our solicitous waiter. The two flowers are battered and deep fried — tempura style — and are a delicate springtime treat.

Desserts include the ubiquitous creme brulee and tiramisu; a pear with a rice cake; coffee mousse, and chocolate mousse.

Service can be uneven. In the evenings; there’s lots of rushing back and forth, and the hostess doesn’t seem to care very much whether a diner stays or goes. At lunch, the staff is courteous, concerned and helpful, and waiters are attentive and accommodating. The kitchen, although sometimes slow in delivery, splits dishes graciously and elegantly at a diner’s request, no mean feat for a busy restaurant.

On a beautiful day, the restaurant opens the windows of its glass-enclosed front section, and the breeze blows in, making you think for a moment that Prospect Street is a side street in Italy. Cafe Milano sets no trends, but it is surely trendy.

RESTAURANT: Cafe Milano, 3251 Prospect St. NW; 202/333-6183

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; dinner 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and until 11 p.m. Sunday

PRICE: Starters $8 to $19 (lunch), $11 to $19 (dinner); pizzas and pastas $9 to $29 (lunch and dinner); main courses $23 to $26 (lunch), $28 to $42 (dinner); desserts $8.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

PARKING: Difficult street parking; public parking lot across Potomac Street

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

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