Miami might have better weather compared with Washington, but it's no dining mecca. Just ask Loris Navone, the recently installed chef at the newly renovated Bibiana in downtown Washington. He comes from Casa Tua in Miami, "a tourist trap" where "all they want is carpaccio and salads," says the Swiss-born Italian.
Ribollita might have been unthinkable in his last job, but not at Bibiana. His reworking of the Tuscan peasant stew into a lasagna-like layering of leftover bread, white beans and vegetables calls to me on a cold winter day. Navone, 42, knows he couldn't sell rabbit in Miami, either. Among the richer main courses is rabbit rolled up with an herbed frittata and served as a thick, glossy round atop sunchoke puree.
The chef's trick for moist meatballs is to incorporate ricotta cheese into the mix of half ground veal, half beef and pork. A wash of tomato sauce, enriched with veal stock, and a ring of mascarpone-infused polenta further elevate the meatballs, which are offered as an appetizer but ideal as a light entree.
Navone has been cooking for a long time. As a child, under the watch of his grandmother, he participated in making pasta; the dough, he recalls, "was my toy." By the time he was 6, he was rolling out gnocchi and ravioli with ease. Practice clearly paid off, evinced by his simple, wholly satisfying bucatini, sparked with chiles and bolstered with guanciale, made with pork cheeks. The most indulgent pasta is agnolotti del plin, a presentation that fits in bites of foie gras, winy duck and a pop of color thanks to pomegranate seeds. The delivery involves a server shaving cold foie gras over the plate — "my cheese for the dish," cracks the chef.
The interior refresh of the nearly nine-year-old restaurant keeps the silver lights that are meant to evoke fistfuls of fettuccine (but remind me of bows on Christmas packages) and swaps orange hues for teal while adding a glass-enclosed, private dining room for a dozen near the entrance. Black-and-white blowup photographs of Italians doing what they do — eating pasta, riding a Vespa — dress a rear wall. If the space feels airier, it might be because owner Ashok Bajaj removed a table in the dining room and restocked it with more compact chairs.
A couple of meals at the tweaked Bibiana suggest that Miami's loss is Washington's win.
1100 New York Ave. NW. 202-216-9550. bibianadc.com. Dinner entrees, $20 to $35.