By Elana Schor - 10/15/09 09:14 PM EDT
From Potenza to Posto to Al Crostino and beyond, the capital is brimming with brick-oven pizza and abounding with anchovies. So what sets Bibiana Osteria and Enoteca, the latest arrival in this Roman arms race, apart from the rest?
Simply put, Bajaj knows the secret to pleasing foodies in this famously finicky city. And Bibiana manages to brand itself in exactly the same fashion as Rasika, Bajaj’s four-star Indian spot.
Its décor is the epitome of date-night chic, but its prices are within reach of all salaries. Its menu has the hallmarks of traditional Florentine fare, with chicken liver crostini and plenty of mollusks, but there are undeniable crowd-pleasers on hand, including a deliriously doughy pizza topped with a semi-liquefied egg.
Bibiana also can boast one indelible dish, a “black and blue” pairing of ebony squid ink-infused spaghetti and local Maryland crabmeat. Served in the Abruzzan style, tossed simply with garlic, olive oil and a smattering of spicy red pepper flakes, it is a veritable knockout — a taste to leave even seen-it-all Italian skeptics struck dumb.
Bajaj cannot claim credit for the kitchen’s high notes, but he did conduct a lengthy search for an executive chef. The winner of that derby, 29-year-old Nicholas Stefanelli, comes to Bibiana with a stellar pedigree, having apprenticed under Fabio Trabocchi at two of his award-winning restaurants.
Bibiana also posts a rising star in the sommelier’s spot, having lured under-30 Francesco Amodeo from Hook in Georgetown.
The relative youth of its talent shows up well in small yet stylish touches, such as the artisanal watermelon syrup that complements a rum cocktail and the cheeky geometric arrangement of a beet-and-blue cheese salad.
Bibiana’s most potent stylistic element, however, may be its design. The 65-seat dining room is decked out in Rothko-esque minimalism that may seem familiar to Bajaj fans, though Rasika’s red hues have been replaced by a more European chrome silver and burnt orange. Muted bead curtains cordon off a private dining area, while futuristic metal chandeliers loom overhead.
With a famous owner and a prodigy of a chef, Bibiana has gone off like a regular Roman candle. But it’s worth warning would-be diners that the service has not yet gotten into a groove. On one visit, my companion was turned away for arriving 10 minutes early, and a scheduled reservation gave way to a 45-minute wait.
When I watched another party enter and promptly get seated ahead of us, the host shrugged his reply: “They know the owner.”
At its best, Bibiana delivers presentations that recall a star vehicle at Oscar season, turning a singular ingredient into the focal point and everything else on the plate into a supporting player.
The agnolotti, small ravioli filled with sheep’s milk ricotta, are so elevated by their lemon-and-marjoram sauce that the creaminess of the cheese even takes on a light citrus note. As bizarre as it may sound, it’s downright irresistible to the palate.
Another offering of stuffed pasta contained tender braised veal cheeks. Their smoky tang overcame the sweetness of the accompanying brown butter sauce more and more with every bite as the delicate homemade pasta collapsed on the tongue, creating a heady sensation that almost makes you sorry to have cleaned your plate.
For newcomers to Bibiana, the best bets are the simple standards that may spark memories of the Continent. The aforementioned liver crostini are fluffy as spun sugar but pack a hearty punch, especially when paired with sweet-and-sour red onion marmalade. An appetizer of gooey burrata mozzarella is impossible to turn down, and the roasted duck breast is an impeccable cut rendered uniquely with pureed celery root and half of one delightfully caramelized grilled peach.
Of course, no aspirant would be worthy of Washington’s Italian-food crown without the right dessert menu. On that score, Bajaj again displayed a keen eye by plucking Douglas Hernandez away from Central, where he supervised sweets for über-chef Michel Richard.
Bite for bite, Hernandez could well be the city’s best working pastry chef. His panna cotta is the cool kid of the bunch, with a peach puree that pours sensually from the center of the custard and a crust of crunchy biscotti bits that Bibiana servers like to call “Tuscan soil.”
But three other final courses simply shouldn’t be missed. The partially frozen ice cream cakelets known as semifreddos are notoriously easy to get wrong, but Hernandez’s strawberry mascarpone version is ballet-pink perfect.
His ricotta fritters are equally revelatory, their warm centers giving way to a dusting of fragrant green cardamom sugar.
Finally, the “bomba chocolate” is an unabashed feast of ganache, mousse and cookies that brings to mind Central’s iconic multilayered Kit Kat Bar.
Bajaj had better be careful, lest the capital’s A-list get too fond of his dessert list.