Sushi Italiano: Sette Bello

Sashimi lovers across the country are rejoicing in the burgeoning crudo trend, an Italian style of raw or lightly cooked seafood, featured at nascent Clarendon restaurant Sette Bello. It’s the latest venture from the guys that gave us Caf? Milano in Georgetown and Sette Osteria in Dupont.

Though crudo has been around for ages in Italy, it was Mario Batali’s New York venture, Esca, that introduced it to the American palate, and upscale eateries on both coasts have begun experimenting with the versatile dish. Thanks to Sette Bello, Washingtonians can now join the ranks of crudo fans. I love Italian food, and I love sushi, but would I love them combined? I made reservations at Sette Bello with hopes of finding my answer. As it turns out, crudo is just one of many things that this new Italian restaurant does with creative excellence.

Start your meal at Sette Bello with an antipasti selection, where the menu’s crudo dishes reside. Tonne Tonnato is a delightful quartet of tuna tartare slices, delicately sliced and zig-zagged with a sort of garlic aioli and capers, their peppery zing contrasting well with the smoky seared edges of the fish. I could’ve ordered several more plates of this silken revelation and eaten it as my meal, but alas, Sette Bello’s other creations beckoned. Salmon devotees will want to sample the equally inviting Tricotti di Salmone, where the fish is prepared three ways. Start out with a bit of the salty roe caviar; move onto the elegantly simple ceviche, dressed with only olive oil and herbs; and finish with the salmon “margarita,” playfully presented as a fruity “shot,” the tiny cubes of salmon marinating in Cointreau and tequila.

The promising appetizers are but a preview of good things to come. With a traditional Italian menu of pastas, pizzas and meat entrees, Sette Bello’s kitchen serves up a balanced repertoire that would do my Italian nona proud. Pasta is especially well-executed, and the Lune alle Zucca, a voluptuous pumpkin ravioli, is the diva among stars. Tucked into buttery homemade ravioli shells, the creamy filling seduces with addictive sweetness that never becomes cloying because portions are refreshingly modest.

Though the soft pumpkin pillows steal the show, other dishes hold their own. Spaghetti was perfectly al dente, with a generous smattering of fresh mussels and clams, and enlivened with chili flakes. I recommend bringing friends and ordering various dishes so that you can taste as many of Sette Bello’s dishes as possible.

Service was exemplary, signaling that Sette Bello is the total package. Our server took the time to explain the crudo concept, and it was he who adeptly recommended the tuna tartare I’m still swooning over. Even owner Franco Nuschese, CEO and president of Georgetown Entertainment Group, stopped by the table to mingle, then humbly cleared away our dishes.

No Italian meal is complete without tiramisu, and Sette Bello’s version with mascarpone is served in a crispy pocket of caramelized sugar. The sorbet, however, is perhaps a more refreshing finish, with its cool trio of cinnamon, pear and blueberry flavors. The wine list is nicely varied and composed of Italian choices by the glass or the bottle.

The atmosphere is decidedly upscale; this is a far cry from your hometown Olive Garden, so dress to impress, but warm lighting and a hopping bar scene ensure that the space is hip, not fussy. Prices are on the high end of moderate, though the quality of the food and the attentive service put it on par with some of Washington’s priciest restaurants, so it feels like a steal. Sette Bello confirms what true Italian cuisine connoisseurs have known all along: crudo or otherwise, you simply can’t beat fresh ingredients, simply prepared and served with a heaping dose of hospitality.

Sette Bello is located at 3101 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, Va.

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