Don't yawn. Bibiana does well by Italian.
1100 New York Ave. NW (entrance at 12th and H streets).
** 1/2 (out of four)
Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice
If you need proof that practice makes perfect, or something approaching that state, allow me to introduce you to Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca. It's the seventh establishment from the tireless Ashok Bajaj and, as its name suggests, a departure from his usual American and Indian dining formulas.
Bibiana is also one of the smoothest restaurant arrivals I've witnessed in years. Shortly after it opened for business in September, I found myself marveling at how polished the place felt. Attending to patrons were a few of the best waiters in town, and some of what they delivered to the tables quickened pulses. White ribbons of lardo (raw pork fat) and a sunny egg graced a simple but fabulous fontina-paved pizza; and even without an optional shaving of white truffles, a fall special of taglioni, bound with melted butter and Parmesan and ignited with anchovies and garlic, made me lean right into my plate.
Another place to eat Italian. Do I hear a yawn out there? Bibiana might stifle it. The restaurant has the considerable advantage of chef Nicholas Stefanelli, 29, whose skill was honed at Maestro in McLean and Fiamma in New York, both late, both great and both helmed by Fabio Trabocchi (now at the Four Seasons in Manhattan). Stefanelli, a native of Beltsville, last cooked at Mio downtown, which he left in June and where his culinary ambitions were curtailed by the recession.
As with every restaurant he has opened in the city since 1988, Bajaj relied on the British designer Harry Gregory to dress up Bibiana. This is one of the restaurateur's most attractive spaces yet, starting with a small lounge in shades of olive green, mellow yellow and soft orange. The buzzy scene calls for champagne, er, prosecco. Among the outsize black-and-white photographs in the dining rooms, shots of the Colosseum and a Vespa channel Italy; the rooms' chrome lights suggest giant, silver-dipped snowballs. The best spot is behind the stainless-steel-beaded curtains in the main dining room. It's as noisy as anywhere else here, yet it feels discreet.
The menu opens with a clutch of snacks for sharing. The lightest are fresh oysters tweaked with a citrusy foam; the heartiest, tender veal meatballs veined with lemon zest. Dates, almonds and ricotta salata make for an elegant salad. Salt cod fritters are a letdown, however, overwhelmed by sodium and faint on fish flavor.
Much like Frank Ruta at Palena and Tom Power at Corduroy, Stefanelli edits his work well. Give him a high-quality piece of meat or fish, and he pretty much lets the meat or fish win you over on its own. Strip loin steak, dry-aged in-house, is cooked as you prefer, topped with grilled radicchio and ringed with aged balsamic vinegar. It's very good, but what makes the dish is the grass-green salsa verde alongside the beef. Duck, set off with a brush stroke of celery root puree and a sprinkling of dried cherries, is even better. The best fish, and one of the most memorable dishes here, is turbot with tender squid and its mascara-black ink. The fish is white, sweet, firm and meaty; potatoes smoked in hay (an old Maestro trick) and "crushed" with olive oil make a seductive base.
Tripe is not a dish you expect to find in a fancy downtown restaurant. Some people are turned off just to learn that it's stomach lining. The organ meat's barnyard aroma is not to everyone's taste. I love the stuff. Tripe reminds me of Rome and Florence, where it's considered a specialty. Stefanelli rewards interested parties with a hearty braise, served in a clay pot, that picks up gusto from pancetta, Parmesan and more.
Stefanelli's pastas send me to Italy, too, foremost his sublime risottos and his agnolotti, ricotta-plumped pillows sharpened with lemon zest and mellowed with marjoram. The lone disappointment in its category: "smoked" potato gnocchi. Where was the smoke, I wondered as I ate a dense and dull nugget of starch. Undercooked Brussels sprouts made the dish sorrier.
The entrees are well accessorized, but I urge you to order a side dish of cauliflower. The chef gives the humble vegetable a charge, partnering roasted florets with anchovies, garlic and sometimes chilies. The treatment is so compelling, I was tempted to order another portion.
The best desserts are the least Italian. Go, then, for the elegant bar of sweet potato cheesecake rather than the big, vague-tasting ricotta fritters. I'm agnostic when it comes to chocolate, but Bibiana's decadent bombe moved me to eat more of it than I had expected. Panna cotta with crunchy bits of streusel is fine.