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Line cook Danielle Nixon dishes up a Neapolitan-style pizza( Photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Fig and Pig pizza (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Interior (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Squid ink spaghettini in puttanesca (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
I know a restaurant is something special well before my food arrives. I usually can tell within the first 15 minutes. How, you ask? The spot has people. I don’t mean that it’s packed, but rather that the management has purveyors, product and personnel — people — that it respects, to which it is loyal. I can tell almost immediately. Nota Bene Restaurant & Bar, formerly known as Pizza Tonight Restaurant & Bar, is something special.
I try the restaurant on a rainy Thursday. As soon as I cross the threshold, the bartender locks eyes, then gestures to an empty stool in way that suggests this entire scene — the globe-encased Edison bulbs; the ghostly melodies of Blonde Redhead; the parsley and sweet seawater aroma of oven-roasted northern puffer, or “sugar toad” — has been waiting for me all along. He brings me a menu, takes a drink order and then, pulling the bottle from the fridge, pauses for a millisecond and gives the air an almost undetectable fist-bump on the downbeat, before smiling and setting the glass of prosecco in front of me. He’s in his element and in a contagiously good mood, with impeccable timing. He’s one of Nota Bene's people. We’re five minutes in.
On the wine list there are four labels from Piedmontese producer Vietti, including Barbera d’Alba — the ultimate red-sauce wine — and they're all available by the glass. It’s unusual for a short wine list to have so many offerings from the same maker unless someone wants to turn diners on to something great. Nota Bene has purveyors. We’re eight minutes in.
I start thinking pizza, salivating over thoughts of the chewy crust, leopard-spotted from the 850-degree Pavesi oven. Rutted with spice, nubby tomato sauce and just enough cheese to complement, not conceal, the disparate ingredients, pizza here is never soupy in the middle, nor cracker-like at the edges, the way Neapolitan pizza gets when it’s sloppily made. I’ve sunk my teeth into one with firm potato slivers, misted with rosemary, chili heat smacking my lips. I recall another visit's patchwork of house-made mozzarella, fresh tomato sauce and plush basil on the Margherita. The truffled aroma of a taleggio pie wafts under my nose, but it’s the prosciutto, gorgonzola and caramelized fig traffic jam, The Fig and Pig, that’s a near-perfect original. If the pizzas were priced 10 percent lower, we’d have the ne plus ultra pizza pie; a Neapolitan-style Margherita at Nota Bene is $14. At Mario Batali’s Otto in Greenwich Village, a pie the same size that’s made with the more expensive Buffalo mozzarella will only set you back $12. At D.C.’s 2Amys Neopolitan Pizzeria, it’s $12.95.
Executive chef Randall Doetzer has also mastered the wood-burning oven, which sits hidden in a back kitchen and gushes roasted whole flounder licked with olive oil, parsley and flake salt. Pork chops are broken down from the Autumn Olive Farms half-pig, then fed into the oven’s mouth. Clams Calabrese, redolent with white wine, salami and tomato, shouldn’t be served without a consumer advisory to order lots of bread for sopping up its broth.
House-made pasta, cooked al dente, comes sauced with decadence: Eggy, cheesy carbonara studded with guanciale — crisply seared pork jowls — is just one yolk short of otherworldly opulence. Puttanesca, an umami bomb of anchovies, capers and tomato, gets dynamited into squid ink bucatini that’s so fresh you’ll want to smack it. Just thinking about it makes my maw explode with want. This visit, I should order pasta. We’re nine minutes in.
Instead, I opt for small plates: a pearly white, mandolin-shaved mushroom salad; a pork terrine; and arugula with a semaphore of spicy mustard. My food arrives. We’re 20 minutes in but I already know, like I know every time I eat here, that Nota Bene Restaurant & Bar has product. I can tell by the menu. But exactly how I know is my little secret.
3.75 out of 4 forks
2110 E. Main St.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: $3 to $25