To judge by the swarming hordes on the weekends and, more and more, weeknights at Sette Osteria, you’d think that Dupont Circle had just discovered pizza. The restaurant, which has revived part of the space formerly occupied by the Janus movie theater, is not up to anything particularly daring culinarily, and the revelation here is just how hungry the moneyed sophistos in the neighborhood apparently were for a place like this. Less than three months after opening, Sette Osteria already has an air of inevitability about it.
For a restaurant that has generated so much buzz so quickly, the place is fairly nondescript. There’s an open dining room with a kitchen-showroom tiled floor; light-handed, uninspired Mediterranean touches trimming the large space; and a wood-burning oven that gives off a nice, hearthlike warmth. The best design touch is the floor-to-ceiling windows, inviting passers-by to gawk at the bustling scene inside.
The name—sette is “seven” in Italian—is a reference to the number of days a week the place is open, and the kitchen serves until 1 in the morning on weeknights, 2 on weekends. Owner Franco Nuschese, who also owns Georgetown’s Cafe Milano, knows a thing or two about catering to a clientele. In Dupont, of course, he isn’t cozying up to the glamorous and self-important, but to the ordinary and self-important. Sette’s customers may not demand to be ogled and whispered about and pandered to in quite the same way as Milano’s, but they have their needs. When those needs include a place that’s open often and late, with a menu of simple, satisfying dishes and a style and pace that encourage lingering, Nuschese is their man.
There are two or three nightly specials—usually of the hearty, rib-sticking variety that going out for Italian used to mean, pre–food revolution—but Sette works best if you think of it as a place for before or after something else, when a light meal or a leisurely procession of nibbles is preferable to anything as elaborate as courses. It helps, of course, that a good number of bottles of wine are priced in the $20–$30 range, with as many as a dozen available by the glass, and even by the half-glass—the latter an attractive option for devising multiple pairings throughout the meal.
If you’re looking for a quick meal, you might start with the terrific plate of salumi—prosciutto, soppressata, mortadella, and coppa—and then move on to pizzas and pastas, but a number of the antipasti and salads are compelling reasons to dawdle. Calamari, bound by a thin dusting of semolina, then quickly fried, deliver the merest whisper of crunch, though the ringlets themselves remain soft and tender. Salsiccia e Cime di Rape, grilled Italian sausage with broccoli raab, is hearty and satisfying. On the other hand, Gateau di Patate, a timbale of mashed potato studded with grana, dry salami, and smoked mozzarella, is far too dense for its own good; it rivals peanut butter for stickiness and nearly obscures its component flavors. And I’d skip the Caponata Napoletana, whose generous tumble of heirloom tomatoes, while sweet and appealing to the eye, is finally too soft of texture and too wet, making for a soggy hunk of bread at the bottom of the bowl. A better accounting of tomatoes can be found in the Caprese, as is often the case with a place that prides itself on its shopping, though it’s not that the tomatoes themselves are any better so much as the buffala mozzarella is a superior partner—lush, slightly tangy, and with a creaminess that coats the tongue.
Of the salads, I’m partial to two: Carciofi e Sedano, which brings together crunchy, bitter celery hearts with sweet fennel shavings (and too little of the advertised artichoke) in a lemon vinaigrette, is that rare salad that’s light enough to allow you to feel virtuous, yet still delivers enough crunch and complexity to be satisfying. And Rucola e Finocchio finds the fennel and lemon vinaigrette turning up once again, this time with the sweet-tartness of the combination playing against the pepperiness of arugula, with some generous shavings of rich, almost milky pecorino campano to balance the sharpness.
Sette’s pizzas so far have been inconsistent, good one afternoon, soggy in the middle (a topping of raab having been improperly drained) a week later, nearly flawless the following afternoon at lunch. But such is the state of pizza in this city that the mere possibility of getting a good pie, much less a perfect one, is enough inducement for me to keep returning. The crust is soft and slightly sour, and, at its best, looks the part, too, with a puffy, slightly blistered perimeter and a nearly razor-thin center. All the classic versions are here, including the Quattro Formaggi and the Margherita; I prefer the simplest options, with no more than two toppings per pie, so as to preserve the structural integrity of the crust. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the Ai Funghi, with thick-sliced porcini mushrooms strewn atop soft, lightly melting moons of buffala mozzarella.
When you’re working with uniformly good ingredients, the trick is not to get in their way, and executive chef Domenico Cornacchia doesn’t—which is why many of his pastas are bound to underwhelm diners expecting more flash. Mezzani Cacio e Uova, ziti in a thin pecorino-cheese sauce studded with soft, salty pancetta—until recently a menu staple—is so unassuming that you could easily miss its charms the first few bites. (It’s the antithesis of the sort of dish you expect to find down the street at Buca di Beppo, where the tomato sauce flows as liberally as the wine.) Cornacchia seems to be making a quiet, philosophical point about the proper way of dressing pasta—which, by the way, has been perfectly cooked every time out, and in a variety of preparations, too. One of the best is the Cecatelli con Cime de Rape, firm but yielding purses of pasta topped by verdant, lightly bitter broccoli raab and a light shower of pecorino. Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, its potato dumplings baked under a sweet, blanketing marinara with a generous topping of mozzarella, is, in this context, slightly anomalous: a display of comforting richness at odds with the spare and balanced compositions elsewhere.
Desserts are not the strong suit at Sette. (The cannoli, for example, are made soggy by their chocolate coatings.) So I was grateful that my waiter one night directed me to the bomboloni (“They call me Bomboloni, I love it so much”)—three balls of deep-fried dough, the warm, oozing centers of which are filled with Nutella and pastry cream—and engineered a dollop of vanilla-pistachio gelato on the side. I thanked him for his opinion, which, besides being a staple of the proud, proprietary waiters you’re likely to find in Little Italys everywhere, seemed to me to be a key piece of the equation if Sette is to cement its status as the reigning neighborhood drop-by.
Sette Osteria, 1666 Connecticut Ave. NW (202) 483-3070. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.