If Washington were full of good, moderately priced restaurants, a new Italian osteria on the site of the late Janus Theater might be easy to overlook. But Sette (set-tay, Italian for seven) is that rare breed of eatery that occupies the vast chasm between expensive fine dining and food that’s forgettable. Since opening in February, customers have let it be known by their abundant presence that creator and co-owner Franco Nuschese has successfully tapped into a pent-up longing. Where can you go to find solid cooking at affordable prices in a very vibrant neighborhood?
While you’re likely to endure a bit of a wait for a table, you’ll be in good company at a lively, concrete-topped bar that has patrons standing several deep. With spirited conversation and lots of hard surfaces, the noise level can get rather high. But you’re not likely to mind because the feeling here is rather like a big party — the crowd at Sette certainly is enjoying itself.
Sette is light and airy, spilling out to an outdoor patio that’s always in high demand. The kitchen opens to the dining room, revealing a wood-burning oven and a hustling staff that turns out pizzas, pastas and a few interesting entrÃ©es. Once seated, expect the service to be friendly and a tad too familiar. I’d settle for a little less bonding effort from this good wait staff while it accomplishes its consistently attentive work.
A short list of appetizers gets things going. Try the panzarotti, a mini-calzone stuffed with mozzarella and sauced with a spicy marinara. Brodetto di cozze, steamed Great Eastern black mussels are fresh and delicious in their garlicky broth. Fried calamari, that ubiquitous Washington starter, is fresh and tender, lightly battered, but a bit too oil-laden to rise to perfection. There’s more of that spicy marinara for dipping.
Pasta dishes are quite accomplished and arrive steaming hot from the kitchen. My favorite is scialatielli con le malanzane — basil-flavored short fettuccine with eggplant, tomato and smoked mozzarella. Each of its flavors remains distinctive while lending a hand to a delightful medley.
Eggplant parmesan will surprise you. It’s not the oil-laden, heavily breaded eggplant one too often finds. This is unusually light and aromatic owing to fresh basil, tomato and fresh mozzarella. Capellini alla carrettiera – angel hair pasta with zucchini, rucola and sun-dried tomato — hits all the right notes. Fragrant olive oil and garlic bring a unifying force to this delicate dish.
One or two daily fish specials round out the entrÃ©e selections. Recently an offering of a mixed seafood grill was outstanding. Fresh squid, shrimp, scallops and rockfish — served on a bed of red and yellow tomatoes, spinach and broccoli rabe — were all grilled perfectly and wonderfully enhanced by the smoky grill flavor for a perfect summer treat.
Pizzas at Sette owe a good measure of their charm to their crispy crusts, brown and blistered from the intense heat of the wood-burning oven. Choose from combinations selected by the chef or create your own from a fairly inspired list of toppings. Salsiccia e cime di rapa features pork sausage, calabrese chili peppers, broccoli rabe and fresh mozzarella — the peppers provide the fiery edge it needs to soar. Another successful creation is scarola e acciughe, featuring tomato, escarole, gaeta olives, capers, anchovies and fresh mozzarella. It will have you daydreaming of the Mediterranean in no time.
Desserts are a mixed bag. CrÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, studded with fresh mixed berries and topped with a delicately caramelized top, is very good, even if it’s not the creamiest rendition you’ll find. Truly bizarre, however, is Sette’s version of tiramisu, the chocolate and espresso-spiked classic. Here it’s made awful by the substitution of limoncello, a sweet-tart Italian liqueur. To call it tiramisu is sacrilege, but even renaming it wouldn’t redeem it.