You know you’re somewhere special the moment you walk into Cafe Milano’s pop-up location at Expo 2020 Dubai.
After all, despite the global fair having no dearth of local and international restaurants, white tablecloth establishments there are still harder to come by. And this is what Cafe Milano offers, along with a rose on every table, a chic indoor seating area and a terrace enveloped in greenery.
The venue stands out at Expo 2020 by transporting its guests to a cosier, more intimate space.
One can expect nothing less from the famous Washington restaurant, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year. It famously opened on November 3, 1992, the same day Bill Clinton was elected as the 42nd president of the US.
Described as “Washington’s ultimate place to see and be seen” by The Washington Post, it’s known for its famous patrons which includes former presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, and US President Joe Biden.
Famously bipartisan, it has served its famous authentic Italian fare to the likes of America's famous immunologist Anthony Fauci as well as Republican Mike Pence, and is a favourite with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Then there's the Hollywood celebrity clientele which includes everyone from Renee Zellweger to Jon Voight and Eva Longoria.
When asked about what keeps these big names coming back, founder Franco Nuschese is candid as he tells The National: "People want to be comfortable. They want passion, they want honesty. We are trained to remember as much as we can about our clients. Where they like to sit, what they like to eat, whether they have any allergies. That makes a big difference."
Even in a world governed by social media, the restaurant and its staff are careful to protect their high-profile clients from any loose lips. "When we first opened, we had The Washington Post constantly asking us: 'Who came, what did they eat, who paid the cheque?' We never said anything."
So, it's no wonder that the restaurant has earned a reputation for offering a high level of comfort, class and privacy. It’s a standard maintained when it opened its first international branch in Abu Dhabi in 2016.
However, after offering a traditional Italian al fresco experience in Al Maryah Island for five years, Nuschese has grown accustomed to the question, “but what will it take to open Cafe Milano in Dubai?”
The answer to that is, of course, Expo 2020 Dubai. The pop-up, which opened towards the end of October, marks the first time Dubai residents can get a taste of the famous restaurant.
“We wanted to offer something that would complement Expo 2020,” Nuschese explains. “It is a government project after all, and we are a government restaurant,” he says, referring to the fact both Washington and Abu Dhabi branches are known for hosting delegates.
“Dubai is vastly different from Abu Dhabi. But that is a compliment to the country. The beauty of the emirates is that they are all different. If you’re not interested in parties, there are farms, there are deserts.”
And, now there is Expo 2020, a gathering of some of the biggest names from around the world, a fact that hasn’t escaped Nuschese.
“Being in Washington DC for so long, we know a lot of the delegates who are planning to come to Dubai for Expo 2020 before visiting Abu Dhabi. It’s very important that we take care of our diplomats, our ambassadors. I’ve had the privilege to know all of them, and we want to ensure that when they come here, they have a good experience.”
Nuschese admits he doesn’t know whether tourists will travel to Expo 2020 simply to visit the famous restaurant. But the aim is to give new customers visiting the world's fair a taste of fine Italian dining, while offering existing clientele who travel to Dubai the quality they are so accustomed to.
The menu reflects the same, with a selection of the restaurant’s famous antipasti, pizzas and pastas available. Guests will be able to tuck into dishes such as the burrata, Wagyu beef carpaccio, traditional eggplant parmigiana and the signature capellini semsem, an angel hair pasta with corbarino tomato and basil.
“We are very careful about the main ingredients – the oil used in all the restaurants comes from one family, the tomatoes come from Italy.
“I don’t have a lot of restaurants. But with the ones that I do have, I want them to be as consistent as possible. The restaurant business is very challenging. To be able to transfer the same philosophy all the way down has not been easy,” says Nuschese. “We want guests to have the same experience they could get in Washington DC or Abu Dhabi.”
Of course, the Expo 2020 backdrop does offer something special, too. Nuschese, who has visited previous expos in Shanghai and Milan, says he is “very impressed” by the global fair in Dubai, and how it has been organised.
“The Expo  is entertaining the world, which is incredible, given the circumstances. There are still so many people coming here, it’s an experience of a lifetime."
Will this experience lead to a permanent Dubai branch of the famous restaurant? “I’m not sure we will be specifically in this location," he says. "Dubai is important, I don’t want to rule it out permanently. We are looking at the possibility. And perhaps this will give us a better idea.”
Saturday to Wednesday, 10am to midnight; Thursday to Friday, 10am-1am; Mobility District, Expo 2020 Dubai
More information is available at expo2020dubai.com