Bibo hits sweet spot between casual and elegant

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

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

For whatever reason—the need to compensate for the Twin Cities' watery espresso or our nonexistent Little Italy—our local Italian restaurateurs have a tendency toward empire building. Buca di Beppo, born in the basement of a Minneapolis apartment complex, is now a publicly traded company with nearly 100 locations nationwide. The D'Amico Partners restaurant/catering business has spread all the way to Florida. Punch Neapolitan pizzerias are cropping up as fast as tomatoes on an August vine. And now the east side's Parmesan prince, Frank Marchionda, just added another restaurant to his portfolio.

Three decades ago, Marchionda and his wife joined forces with his father and mother (the family's "patriarch and patriarch," he jokes) to open Buon Giorno market, an Italian grocery-deli on a rough-looking corner just north of downtown St. Paul. About seven years ago, Marchionda sold his sandwich-and-olive-oil store to one of his employees and headed to suburban Lilydale to open a chic deli/market/wine shop called Buon Giorno (the St. Paul store is now known as Buon Giorno Express) alongside an upscale Roman ristorante, I Nonni. While both Buon Giorno and I Nonni have become quite popular, Marchionda quickly realized there was room for growth—that Italian-food lovers might want something in between takeout pasta and a $75 wine-paired tasting menu. His newest restaurant, Bibo, in Eagan, intends to fill that niche.

In late 2006, Marchionda made his first foray into mid-priced Italian by opening Il Vesco Vino on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. The restaurant struggled somewhat to find its footing, both in terms of cuisine and ambiance (early on, the kitchen's output was inconsistent, and the business recently relocated to West Seventh Street). Bibo, by contrast, seems to have hit both marks, without feeling either too casual or too exclusive. Marchionda is having his Goldilocks moment.

Marchionda says he had been thinking about opening a neighborhood, family-oriented trattoria when he was approached by a couple of Buon Giorno customers who were looking for a partner to help them replace the former Viva Italia in the strip mall they own at the intersection of Diffley and Johnny Cake Ridge roads. The new restaurant easily out-pretties the neighboring H&R Block and Fantastic Sams with its muted shades of rust, green, and gold, and its wine-barrel mural, wine-label graphics, and black-and-white vineyard photos. While Eagan may already be saturated with the typical American chain eateries (Applebee's, Perkins, Houlihan's, Jake's), its population seems underserved by independent neighborhood eateries, particularly those offering something a little more elegant than barbecue riblets and Yellowtail wine. At Bibo, diners experience the entry-level version of I Nonni's scratch-made, authentic Italian cooking—for the cost of a meal at Olive Garden.

Bibo is a Latin word that means "I drink," and the restaurant's generous pours of Italian wines make it a good place for doing just that. (Frank's son, Marc, who curates the vast selection of wines at Buon Giorno and I Nonni, put together Bibo's succinct, mid-range list.) The menu lacks any description of the wines, which leaves those unfamiliar with Italian grapes at the mercy of Bibo's seemingly inexperienced staff. On my visits, the enthusiastic servers were perfectly competent delivering food but teetered a bit in their understanding of the restaurant's wines. (If servers expect their diners might not be familiar with frisée—"kind of like lettuce," one server explained—I'd think they wouldn't assume much knowledge of Aglianico or Falanghina.) When I asked for a suggestion to pair with scallops, my server vaguely characterized her recommendation as tasting "like the land and the sea." I wasn't entirely sure what to expect—dirt mixed with saltwater?—though, in the end, the wine's mineral notes did match well with the seafood.

On another visit, I asked my youthful server to describe the taste of one of the Negroni's ingredients, aperol, an Italian aperitif that only recently started being imported to the United States. When he responded that he hadn't tried it, I couldn't help but think, Is that because you're not old enough to drink? (Not that I blamed him, having myself once been a clueless teenager performing wine service. What is that chardonnay like? You mean, compared to Boone's Farm's Strawberry Hill?) In any case, his approach to helping my friend pick a wine was much more useful, as he compared his selections to more familiar grapes and used helpful descriptions of body, flavor, and dryness.

The wines pair well with both Bibo's Italian-American dishes, such as spaghetti with meatballs and chicken Parmesan, and more authentic, traditional fare. Among the pasta dishes, the lasagnette was one of the best I've had, unique for its delicacy. Pliable noodles, light as bed sheets, were layered with a sassy tomato sauce, ground pork and beef, and a creamy mixture of béchamel, mozzarella, mascarpone, and ricotta cheeses. The mostaccioli alla norcina is one more notch toward adventurous, its smooth, penne-like tubes glistening with truffle oil and piled with sausage crumbles, fennel, and red pepper flakes. It's the sort of dish you almost hate to order at a restaurant, as its ingredients are simple and its cooking techniques lie within the skill set of a decent home cook, yet its forthright flavors caused everyone in my party to keep reaching their forks across the table. Bibo's gutsiest pasta is probably the perciatelli alla carbonara, made with long, hollow pasta tubes sturdy enough to stand up to the nubbins of fatty, crackling pancetta. Bibo's traditional Italian preparation, Marchionda says, coats the noodles in egg yolks right before they're served, which presents the challenge of heating the eggs without cooking them. ("If you've ever had 'em scrambled, you had a bad carbonara," he notes.) But the yolky goo, which puddled in the bottom of the bowl, quivering like it was still living, may be a little too raw for those not accustomed to it.

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.

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.