Restless D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj is tinkering with another one of his longstanding restaurants. This time, the accomplished owner of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group (Rasika, Sababa, the Oval Room) is reimagining Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, his 10-year-old, decadent Italian place downtown that fostered the career of one the city’s star chefs and once counted Michelle Obama as a repeat customer.
Knightsbridge announced today that Bibiana will close on the last day of the month and reopen with a refreshed look, a new chef, and a new menu on Monday, September 9. Former Oval Room chef John Melfi is leaving a short-lived role at Robert Wiedmaier’s group to lead the new restaurant, dubbed Modena, which will mix locally sourced ingredients with regional Italian staples like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, and — obviously — balsamic vinegar from Modena.
In a statement, Bajaj says Modena won’t be “mired in only traditional Italian cooking” and will deliver “a more playful and creative menu.”
One of Melfi’s signatures is spaghetti-like chitarra pasta swimming with Calabrian chile, sea urchin, and jumbo lump crab. There will also be a crescia, a savory, cheesy panettone that will be sliced, grilled, and served with toppings like prosciutto, mascarpone, or tuna crudo. An antipasti trolley will deliver six to eight family-style dishes at a time, including marinatd peppers, artichoke scafata (fava stew), and pasta and fagioli (bean) soup.
Melfi has previously worked as an executive chef at Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola and Fiola Mare. He’s spent time at D.C. fixtures Vidalia (now-closed) and the Blue Duck Tavern. The Oval Room got a three-star review from the Post under his watch.
After it opened in 2009, Esquire named Bibiana a Best New Restaurant. Opening chef Nicholas Stefanelli went on to launch a successful solo career that includes Masseria — the epic Puglia-style tasting room in the Union Market district — Officina on the Southwest Waterfront, and a forthcoming Greek project downtown.
Bajaj’s restaurants have been trending toward lighter dishes and shareable formats. In January, he completed a similar quick turnaround by transforming his American brasserie, NoPa Kitchen + Bar, into a Western Mediterranean restaurant called Olivia. In the past few years, Bajaj has reinvigorated his former Ardeo + Bardeo properties by introducing Sababa and Indian street food spot Bindaas inside. Next month he plans to open a restaurant called Annabelle inside the Dupont building that housed organic pioneer Restaurant Nora for 40 years.
A representative for Bajaj says that Loris Navone, the last-known chef at Bibiana, has left the restaurant group. Navone, a Swiss-born Italian, impressed Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema shortly after his arrival, drawing a positive review in January 2018 that referenced ricotta-laced meatballs and an agnolotti topped with shavings of frozen foie gras instead of Parmesan. Under Navone, Bibiana was rated No. 61 on Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants earlier this year.
Bibiana’s dining room was renovated less than two years ago, but Modena will reportedly receive “a new color scheme, new artwork, and the addition of planters filled with greenery.”