With our friends, Michael and Susan, we tried Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City, Northern Virginia, the latest in Roberto Donna's culinary ventures. According to the web site, the restaurant fulfills "Chef Donna's life long dream of having a restaurant that allows guests to enjoy an Italian family dining experience." That statement puzzles me. Bebo Trattoria, while an attractive space, is anything but familial: large, modern, almost semi-industrial, it blends well with the impersonal hotels and high rises in the area. On this particular Sunday night, Bebo was nearly empty, probably due to the bitterly cold weather, but I suspect most of their clientele comes from the local defense industry. It's hard to envision Zia Sophia or Papa Guido merrily downing Montepulciano and risotto in that cavernous setting.
More to the point, the food, with a couple of notable exceptions, was a far cry from memorable Italian dining experiences I've had in the past, whether familial or professional, here or abroad. We started with four appetizers. Our waiter recommended prosciutto biellese, which was unavailable, so we tried speck, a nice smoked prosciutto. Thin slices of guanciale--cured pork cheeks--were not to our liking. Greasy and tasteless, they looked liked uncooked bacon. Far better were the caprese, a lovely combination of fresh mozzarella and homemade sun-dried tomatoes, and the bruschetta. Our entrees were equally mixed: the guys had agnello (lamb chops), which were unevenly cooked, a result of poor heat management according to my husband, the grill guru. Seasoning was applied with a heavy hand, overwhelming the flavor of the lamb. My risotto was the sorriest of the lot: lukewarm and glutinous, it was so salty as to be almost inedible. Susan hit the jackpot with the meatballs. Light, airy, and delicately flavored, they were nothing like the dense golf balls I remember eating as a child.
After hearing our complaints about the food, the maitre d' sent around dessert and glasses of Prosecco, a nice gesture. He apologized for the new chef in the kitchen, but I couldn't help but wonder why a chef that inexperienced (or unskilled) was learning his craft on paying customers. Susan's meatballs evidently had been prepared by Donna himself, which explained the marked contrast in quality. I am still shaking my head over the risotto, a dish that demands some skill but is not difficult. I make very good risotto at home regularly, and I know that stock and cheese can be salty, so I exercise restraint. As Susan noted, saline levels in cheese can vary markedly from one batch to the next. At the very least, taste the dish before flinging in salt with abandon!
If Donna really wants his Tuscan fantasy to work, he needs to get a decent assistant chef and a warmer, more intimate space. Giving his staff some additional training would help too. Our waiter, while pleasant, seemed distracted and never bothered to check on us after serving the food. I would have sent the risotto back to the kitchen, but we had a curtain to make, and I didn't have time to wait for a new preparation. Bizarrely, the maitre d' fiddled with lighting throughout much of our meal, taking us from darkness to glare and then back again. When Susan protested to our waiter, he muttered something about the maitre d' trying to master the lighting panel. Again, shouldn't the staff straighten out problems before the restaurant opens to paying guests, say, early in the morning? If you're going to market a chimera, then you need to tend to the atmosphere as well as the product itself, something Ralph Lauren learned long ago in his showroom displays. The same principle is at work, whether it's cannelloni or comforters.