Cafe Milano opened its doors in Washington 25 years ago and has been a firm favourite with high-profile politicians ever since. We meet founder Franco Nuschese at the restaurant’s only international branch in Abu Dhabi
Franco Nuschese on balancing politics with pasta
Franco Nuschese, founder of famed Washington D C eatery Cafe Milano, has fed some of the most powerful people on the planet, including United States presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama – although the current commander-in-chief has yet to drop by. “It could happen at any time, but I’m not quite sure if it will,” Nuschese tells me. “He’s not someone that goes out a lot. His daughter, yes; the rest of his cabinet, yes; but not him.”
The fate of Nuschese’s Georgetown restaurant is inextricably linked to the politics of the city in which it exists. Exactly 25 years ago tomorrow, on November 3, 1992, president Bill Clinton was elected as the 42nd president of the United States of America. On that same day, Nuschese welcomed his first guests to Cafe Milano.
“It just happened that we opened our doors on the day that president Clinton got elected,” he recalls. “It was a big day. The bar was packed. I’m not quite sure if they were celebrating or they were sad. You’d just had this big change in the government from republican to democrat. It was a great day and a great start for me.”
Nuschese wanted to create a space that was less “stiff” than most Washington eateries and, drawing inspiration from the cafes along Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone, created a concept that combined fashion and food. The restaurant opened with scarves by various Italian fashion brands, including Versace and Gianfranco Ferré, adorning its walls.
Cafe Milano quickly became popular with politicians of all persuasions, not to mention celebrities, socialites and high-ranking members of the media. It has long been the place where the powerful gather – where they go to be seen but not disturbed. The restaurant has grown from 50 seats to 300, and now includes four private dining rooms and five entrances. In a town where loyalty is often in short supply, the restaurant has developed a devoted fan base, which was undeterred even when it was named as the target of a plot to assassinate Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir, the then Saudi ambassador to the US in 2011.
“If I have to tell you the truth, then yes, I was concerned at the time that it would impact business,” Nuschese says. “But we were able to manage it in a way that it didn’t. We actually had some people coming in and asking: ‘Where is the table; can you show us where it happened?’ And the ambassador, who is now the foreign minister, he didn’t stop coming in.”
Nuschese is often asked why he thinks Cafe Milano has been able to retain its popularity for so long. As he points out: “I believe that in 25 years, close to 1,000 new restaurants have opened in Washington.” So what is it about this one? The New York Times puts it down to “peace of mind”, but how does Nuschese explain it? “Our philosophy is to understand our clients. In a city where you have a lot of people from different parties, you need to understand who is who. When we first opened, we had the Washington Post constantly asking us: ‘Who came, what did they eat, who paid the cheque?’ We never said anything.”
Admittedly, 25 years on, in the age of Instagram, that privacy is a little harder to protect – even Nuschese is shocked by how quickly word spreads. A high-profile client will walk in, and he’ll get a call from the media almost immediately. “I’ll say: ‘How do you know? They just came in!’”
November will also mark the first anniversary of Cafe Milano’s only international branch, at the Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi. In spite of the fact that he has lived in the US for decades, Nuschese, who was born on the Amalfi Coast, is still proudly Italian and, when we meet in Abu Dhabi, he has just returned from a three-month trip to the homeland. The Cafe Milano menu is a celebration of Italian cuisine, and the Abu Dhabi restaurant recently launched a weekly Brunch Italiano, which promises to take customers on “a different gastronomic journey across Italy’s 20 regions”.
The restaurateur has long been a friend of the UAE, and Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, is a frequent visitor to the Washington restaurant. “I had given my word that I would come to Abu Dhabi,” Nuschese says, when I ask why he chose the UAE capital as the restaurant’s only international venture. “In a way, I think Washington and Abu Dhabi are really similar – they are government cities. They are a little bit more conservative.
“I’ve always been interested in politics in the Middle East,” he adds. “It is fascinating for me, and I’ve always had a lot of Arab friends. I first came to the UAE 24 years ago, immediately after I opened Cafe Milano. My fascination was driving through Al Ain, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah – back in those days, there was nothing there.”
Nuschese has a tendency to twist off at a tangent, with tales that span continents and decades, and often feature a celebrity or two, not to mention the odd head of state. And once he starts one of his stories, you are never quite sure where he might end up. A case in point is a 2006 visit to the UAE. “I remember in 2006, that I brought Michael Jordan to the UAE. When I used to tell him that I was coming here, he used to say: ‘Franco, I want to come, too.’ So he did, and of course, his secretary wanted to send security from the USA, and they booked him into the Burj Al Arab. I took him to play golf and ski in the mall. In the end, I told him: ‘If you listen to me, I’ll give you a great tour and make you understand what this country and its culture is all about.’”
Nuschese often sounds like a politician himself – and has a canny ability to answer a question without actually answering a question. For example, he is elusive when I ask whether his own political beliefs ever impact his attitude towards high-profile customers. “From a business standpoint, there’s not much we can do,” he says, before likening his job to that of a journalist. “I love journalism, but good journalism. I was always fascinated by how, with some great journalists, you can’t even tell what their political views are, or whether they are democrats or republicans.”
Perhaps, then, it is Nuschese’s diplomatic approach that has made Cafe Milano such a success. After all, in Washington, people, politicians and parties may come and go. But Cafe Milano is a constant.