‘I Was Fascinated by Entertaining’


Franco Nuschese
Cafe Milano
3251 Prospect St NW

Franco Nuschese watched the bar flood with Washingtonians the night Café Milano opened—some drowning their sorrows, others celebrating a new era in the nation’s capital. It was November 3, 1992, and Bill Clinton had just won the Presidency.

‘I don’t know if they were celebrating or they were sad, but it was a great start.’

Born in the small town of Minori along the Amalfi coast, Franco grew up appreciating good food, and a great time.

He left college without a degree and ventured to London in the late 70s, eventually working at the PlayBoy Club. When they lost their license, Franco moved to Las Vegas and spent a decade working for both the food and beverage, and marketing departments at Caesar’s Palace—the place to be in Sin City, before the Mirage was built.

‘The idea of entertaining was always a fascinating one, and Las Vegas was an amazing experience where you are exposed to an international market. People can win, people can lose, but at the end of the day, they had an amazing trip—from their arrival, to the parties, to the food and entertainment. When you go to Las Vegas, we’re going to entertain you for this weekend, no matter what. It was an amazing model to start with.’

After 10 years on the Strip, Franco moved to DC and began consulting in the restaurant industry. A year later, he saw the Café Milano space just off Wisconsin Avenue—a former Bread & Chocolate with 50 seats. Franco had no intention of owning his own restaurant, but recognized the inherent charm and prime location, and went for it.

‘It was a different vibe from being close to the Hill, being close to the University students. I said if we do something casual but great, I feel very good that people will come. We opened the door, and I knew it right away. In a week of opening, I knew it.’

Over the next eight years, Café Milano established itself as a who’s who of politicians who could be seen but not bothered—President Clinton and his delegations becoming staples at the restaurant as the city underwent a dynamic changing of the guard.

After years spent entertaining celebrities, Franco was unphased.

‘They were great years, with people going out a lot, and I was never, never starstruck. I was coming from Vegas—the best vaccination for getting starstruck. I was never uncomfortable or afraid to approach.’

As A-listers flocked to Café Milano, Franco intentionally created a space that welcomed all—regardless of status or political affiliation.

‘I knew we were a place that was extremely different from other places in Washington at that time. I wanted people to be very comfortable, whether they had a tie, no tie, jacket, sports coat, jeans. At the end of the day, in a town where we have thousands of lobbyists, I always wanted to be a bi-partisan place. It was never about politics. It was a place for everyone to enjoy themselves. The rest is pretty much history.’

More than 25 years, several building expansions, and a few Presidents later, Franco is just as passionate about entertaining—particularly when he’s able to do so for the greater good.

Among other causes, Franco serves on the Board for the Atlantic Council and the Institute of Human Virology—the latter specializing in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and other chronic viral diseases. He uses his platform and privilege to amplify their work.

‘The power and the success of the restaurant to help the foundations is what means the most to me.’

Franco says bringing heads of state, politicians, journalists and philanthropists to the same table—whether for a charitable event or a celebratory dinner—offers a unique peak behind the curtain; one that’s vastly different from what’s presented on TV.

‘A lot of people always ask me if I hear anything that was off record. I’m sure that I did but I exercise complete discretion. To be able to bring people together for different things is very rewarding.’

As DC evolved into an international food destination, Franco maintained those relationships. Today, he’s still confident Café Milano offers an experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere, no matter how many more restaurants and concepts emerge.

‘You can always go for pizza. You can go to a club, a bar. But when you have an evening with friends and you want to talk and haven’t seen each other for a long time, there’s a very special evening you want to give them and not worry about what you say. Intimacy is extremely difficult to create in a restaurant and we try our best to have that. Entertainment is my priority. I do it with passion.’

FoodZeina DavisFood