Bibo hits sweet spot between casual and elegant

Eagan restaurant completes triad of Italian spots owned by Frank Marchionda

To keep entrée prices less than $20, Bibo's main dishes focus on inexpensive cuts of meat. At I Nonni, for example, the lamb chops run $36, while at Bibo, the lamb shank costs $17. I Nonni's pork chops are $26, while Bibo's braised pork shoulder is $15. A smaller portion of I Nonni's 16-ounce grilled beef strip tagliata is served at Bibo for $17, and so on. The cheaper cuts still pack plenty of flavor, but the "piatti" aren't exactly well-rounded meals, as most consist of a substantial portion of meat with a small vegetable side. On weekends, the kitchen occasionally serves specials as well, and one night I lucked into a delightful pairing of scallops with frisée, grape tomatoes, shallots, and supremed orange segments (with their pith and fibrous membranes painstakingly removed) in a bright citrus vinaigrette.

If you're just looking for snacks, Bibo has several nice appetizers, such as the white bean and sopressata (a type of salami) crostini and a rustic caponata, a Sicilian-style cooked eggplant dish that was loaded with olives, onion, pine nuts, and tomato, and served on grill-blackened toasts. The pizza I tried was decent, but its mozzarella and salami were rather mild and its cracker-thin crust quickly turned flaccid. Our favorite appetizer was the mozzarella in carrozza, a.k.a. "cheese in a carriage," which is basically a mozzarella sandwich that's been dipped in egg, coated with breadcrumbs, and fried. Compared to mozzarella sticks, the sandwiches offer fried-food lovers the same crispy, greasy, crust and melty cheese interior, but with enough bready filler to reduce the risk of a gut bomb. In Italy, these treats are often served with anchovies, but Marchionda decided to leave them out, so as not to scare diners, though they may be added by request.

Filling a niche: Romana bruschette (top) and braised lamb shank alla cacciatore
Sarah Nienaber
Filling a niche: Romana bruschette (top) and braised lamb shank alla cacciatore

A lot of restaurateurs are probably deciding to hold the anchovies and play it safe these days. I certainly don't expect 2009 to be the year of challenging, avant cuisine. But as diners with haute expectations decide to downscale, the climate may be right for independent, mid-priced operators to bolster their ranks and challenge chain restaurants' market dominance—just as Bibo seems to be doing already. 

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