Image: Cavatelli (half order) with Nettles Pesto and Scallops (they ran out of shrimp).
NOTE: Bibiana closed and is now Modena under the same management but with a different chef.
Last Visited: May 2019
Bibiana could just mail it in as another good Italian place servicing the hotels and businesses downtown. It doesn’t. It is part of Ashok Bajaj’s local empire of restaurants. As he has done with places like the Rasikas and Bindaas, he seems to push, when he could rest on his laurels (see e.g., Olivia). There is also something in the founding DNA that the opening chef Nick Steffanelli implanted on this place that carries forward. He moved on to Masseria, and we are now a couple chefs removed, but something remains. It remains an excellent restaurant.
The current guardian of that legacy is Chef Loris Navone, who Bajaj brought in at the end of 2017 to re-boot the place. Navone’s menu includes many traditional dishes (fritto misto, pizzas were added), but also some that are more refined than you might be expecting: tuna tartare under a layer of creamed avocado (basically guacamole), pickled watermelon rind on top of arancini. The menu changes to keep things fresh – ramps in April or a nettles pesto in May. Under Navone, French touches make appearances, like sea bass atop “pommes fondant” surrounded by lobster bisque. This may perturb some glancing at the menu for the first time, but my bet is consternation will end in satisfaction. Pasta dishes are available in half sizes, which is good if you want to go light or leave room for secondi.
The Italian-focused wine list is deep with many options in the double digits, some of them quite good. Cocktails are good, and there is a decent selection of amaro and grappa.
The service is attentive. The Maitre D’ may wish you bounaserra and arrividerci as you come and go. If they put white tablecloths on the tables, they might be able to charge a few dollars more, but it would lose something of the charm (that said, it is not cheap). It is hard to maintain creativity over many years and many staff changes. Bibiana is an overlooked treasure. If someone suggests RPM, tell them you have a better idea.
Other guidance: The crowd is the classic downtown mixture of professionals and tourists with no implied dress code. There are gluten-free options including for pasta, which can be more dense than al dente. Vegetarians can also do well.
Rating: Worth Paying for Cab
Location: 1100 New York Avenue, NW (but the street address is a lie, it’s on the corner of 12th and H)
Washington Post: 2-3 stars over the years. Most recent ranking was 2, but a more recent write-up, after the arrival of Chef Navone, was more positive.