Selecting Sette
[from March 2004 issue]

If you wonder why DC has room for yet another Italian restaurant, you haven't eaten at Sette Osteria yet. Joining the charmed life in Dupont Circle, this newcomer sets about stripping away all our preconceived, Chef Boyardee notions of Italian cooking and presents us with Neapolitan food that's the real deal--which I can confirm after attending a Slow Food conference in Naples recently. No lackluster imitation, Sette Osteria--"sette" means seven, a lucky Italian number apparently, or so their website says--dishes out no over-sauced pasta, no tricky cheese-crusted and gooey pizzas, and by all appearances, no greasy calamari. In a word, the food is glorious.

That said, Sette has been discovered, and at noontime and into the afternoon, you can count on finding crowds and a bit of bedlam, and possibly not immediate seating, though you can opt to cozy up to the bar that curves along the back wall opposite the open kitchen. Dinners must find quadruple the numbers of the hungry, urgently and desperately seeking pizza.

Pizza sizzled and browned in the wood-burning ovens is the name of the Sette game--which I didn't figure out until long after my recent lunch. Talk about regrets--with a choice of nine pies with such toppings as fresh mozzarella, broccoli rabe, pork sausage and Calabrese chili peppers; or, tomato, escarole, gaeta olive, capers, anchovies and fresh mozzarella, plus dozens of topping choices (some free, other with a small charge), why would anyone select a pasta? Or even a portion of the house specials, the lasagna di carnevale, a Neapolitan baked meat lasagna, or melanzane alla Parmigiana (eggplant Parmesan with basil and tomato).

Look at it this way: These just give me 27 reasons to return to Sette as soon as possible. Yet, how could I trade away the homemade cecatelli con cime di rape, or homemade cecatelli pasta topped with nicely trimmed and fresh broccoli rabe, another reason to adore Sette. A much-ignored vegetable in the US, tart broccoli rabe (or rape or rapini) is a wonder of nature, the prince amongst greens, especially when lightly sautéed and tossed with pasta. On this particular dish, look for a shaving of pecorino cheese, which melts decorously into the hot pasta, smoothing out and enriching each bite. Fabulous, I thought, scooping up every last snippet of vegetable. Other pastas include gnocchi baked with tomato and mozzarella, ziti with pancetta, curly fettuccini with onion and zucchini, rigatoni with Neapolitan meat sauce, plus a few others.

Of course, Sette sets out a handful of appetizers, at least one of which could be called indecently good: the mozzarella en carrozza, a glorified Neapolitan grilled cheese sandwich which often gets short shrift elsewhere, usually ending up as a thick and oily wedge of bread and cheese. But at Sette, the kitchen gets it right with a version that calls for dunking cheese-topped bread into an egg batter and frying the layers. The result? French toast crossed with grilled cheese, but crustier than either. Other starters include calamari decorated with a wrapped lemon half for squeezing; fire-roasted bell peppers and eggplant; a potato cake with grana, dry salami and smoked mozzarella; and marinated olives. Then there are the salads--but why turn to dressed green with so much else to intrigue and delight?

Desserts corner such Neapolitan favorites as the cannoli, a tiramisu with limoncello (Naples’ heavenly lemon liqueur), and zeppole. Plus a cheese plate. How can any of these fail to please? How much does all this luxury food cost? Far less than a trip to Naples, with pizzas priced in the $8 to $12 range and pastas all at $12. The idea, says the website blurb, is to offer a casual setting, authentic food, and great wine. And it's all affordable. Well, they met their goals!

Sette Osteria, 1666 Conn. Ave.; tel., 483-3070. Hours:, Mon.-Thu. 11:30am-2am; Fri. & Sat. to 3am; Sun., 11:30am-12mid. Major credit cards. Web, target=_top>

*Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for The Washington Post and The Washington Times, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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