Modena Opens in Penn Quarter With a Chic Antipasti Cart and a Rising Star at the Helm

The modern Italian restaurant replaces Bibiana.

Modena replaced Bibiana in Penn Quarter with modern Italian fare. Photograph by Ashlie Levy courtesy of Modena

On the heels of Bibiana’s ten-year anniversary in Penn Quarter, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj shuttered the Italian restaurant and gave it a full makeover—including a new name, new chef, and slightly edgier look (yes, that’s a woman eating pasta in her bra). The result is Modena, which officially opens today for lunch and dinner. 

A dining room that can double as private event space. Photograph by Evy Mages

“Why change? Ten years in, there are so many more Italian restaurants in the city,” says Bajaj (Sfoglina, Centrolina, and Piccolina have all popped up nearby). Helping Modena stand out is chef John Melfi, a rising talent who’s rejoining Bajaj’s hospitality group after a stint at Fiola Mare. He helmed the Oval Room for three years, and held lead positions at some of the city’s top restaurants, including Blue Duck Tavern and Fiola.

Chef John Melfi delivers dishes from an antipasti cart. Photograph by Evy Mages

Modena’s style is less rustic, more modern and refined. As Melfi says, “We’re replacing scoops with quenelles” (he’s also the pastry chef). Tableside cart service—the trend du jour—comes in the form of an antipasti cart set with oils and vinegars for finishing, parmigiano reggiano for grating, and prosciutto di Parma for slicing. Diners can pick between three-and-seven seasonal antipasti ($15 to $21), such as braised artichokes; panzanella salad; or house-confited tuna with white beans. The kitchen is also turning out focaccia with whipped buffalo-milk butter alongside specialty breads from local baking talent Mark Furstenberg.

Heirloom-tomato salad with lemon-basil gelato and balsamic pearls. Photograph by Evy Mages
Dining space by the bar, which serves happy hour and a $30 three-course lunch menu. Photograph by Evy Mages

Melfi says his style involves seasonal, modern takes on classic dishes—think heirloom-tomato salad with straciatella, balsamic pearls, and lemon-basil gelato; “ravioli” fashioned from thinly sliced salmon and herbed mascarpone; or homemade pasta with crab, sea urchin, Calabrian chilies, and intensely flavored Piennolo tomatoes, which are grown on Mt. Vesuvius. There are also simpler dishes, like tagliatelle bolognese with aged parmesan, or thin-crust pizzas at lunch. Meat and seafood entrees include a house-aged duck breast that’s been brined, lightly smoked, and roasted in the pizza oven with herbs, polenta, mizuna, and plums. 

Bigeye tuna crudo with pistachios, trout roe, and lemon oil. Photograph by Evy Mages

“I love really, really pretty plates—but you have to remember it has to taste better than it looks,” says Melfi. 

Modena isn’t the only new thing happening with Bajaj’s Knightsbridge Restaurant Group. Annabelle, a refined American restaurant opening in the historic Restaurant Nora space, is set to debut next month.

Modena. 1100 New York Ave., NW

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.