Up and Down Italian (Full Review)

Italian dining rooms have been springing up all over. New in the mix is Bibiana, which opened late last year in the culinary wasteland where New York Avenue meets H Street, Northwest. Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj (Rasika, Oval Room, 701, Ardeo/Bardeo, Bombay Club) has created a place somewhere between red-sauce Potenza and expense-account Tosca.

The main dining room dazzles with its sculptural lights, orange walls, and black-and-white images of Italian city life. Request a table there—the secondary dining room looks like a hotel meeting area.

The nights I was in the secondary room, few dishes perked things up. The kitchen’s biggest problem is salting, a surprise because head chef Nicholas Stefanelli garnered lots of praise for his cooking at Mio and was a protégé of Fabio Trabocchi’s at Maestro in Tysons Corner. The Romana pizza was salty way beyond what would be expected even with its anchovy and green olives. An entrée of overcooked skate was also overseasoned, and a roasted saddle of lamb suffered nearly as badly.

Other misfires were bucatini with guanciale, an uncured Italian bacon made from pig cheeks, which was virtually undetectable; the red chili and pecorino were also faint in flavor, making the dish taste more like “pasta with oil and onion.” And a pizza with lardo, or cured strips of pig fat, and an egg in the center was a disappointment when it arrived in slices—meaning the prized egg yolk spilled onto the plate.

There are redeeming dishes, such as a perfectly seasoned burrata salad, the creamy cheese paired with a crunchy winter slaw. Also decadent is a buttery chicken-liver mousse on toast. Then there’s the much-touted spaghetti nero,squid-ink pasta tossed with wonderfully sweet Louisiana lump crab. A side of sautéed cauliflower with anchovies and garlic had an earthy flavor.

Excellent desserts included a texture-rich chocolate bombe, refreshing citrus-and-basil soup, silken honey semifreddo, and a homey ricotta-and-dried-fruit bar that tasted like deconstructed cannoli.

The bottom line? Meals here are a roller-coaster.

If one dish captures the experience at Bibiana, it’s the scallop risotto. It’s pretty, with scallops fanned across the rice. The flavors are spot-on, the grains of carnaroli rice verdant with basil, the scallops perfectly cooked. But the rice wasn’t cooked through (al dente doesn’t mean “with a powdery core”) and the scallops were sliced so thin that we got about 1½ scallops for the $21 plate.

And so it goes—you might feel impressed one minute and let down the next. Let’s hope the ride at Bibiana will start to deliver more peaks and fewer valleys.