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Food Review: Nota Bene Has Become an Entirely Different Restaurant 

click to enlarge food43_notabene.jpg

Scott Elmquist

It started with a food truck and pizza. Simple enough. But the restaurant that evolved from owner Victoria DeRoche’s original vision has become a whole other ball of dough, if you will — enough to warrant a name change in the summer from Pizza Tonight to Nota Bene. And as the Latin phrase instructs, we should take special note of this place.

Inside, I vaguely recognize the old Aziza’s on Main space. The white tin ceiling is now painted a dark tone, and bead board is stripped from the wall leaving exposed brick. Pendant lights float midair, glowing like little moons. It’s dim and it’s cozy.

The energy here belies its newness. There’s a buzz of confidence and permanence. The downside is that sometimes it’s loud, and you really must speak up — meaning shout. My main order is completely missed on one occasion and then the server gets busy with another table. A basic dinner for two takes three hours. Not a huge complaint because I have vibrant company.

Other times, plates are shuffled out consistently and the servers are expectant, sometimes over-caffeinated and personable. You can tell they proudly believe in the product they’re selling and are happy to be there to usher you through a dining experience delivered by chef Randall Doetzer.

Under his watchful eye, the kitchen uses fresh ingredients and simple preparations. Most dishes are prepared in cast iron skillets in one of the two wood-fired ovens. Flavor is eked from crisps, chars and foundational Italian seasonings: oil, lemon and salt. Bread is made in-house, as is the pizza dough and the pasta.

One night, there are close to 10 specials crammed on the board. The kitchen seems to be flying through the bounty of this summer’s harvest and many of the plates are vegetables prepared in a way that isn’t specifically Italian, but definitely fresh and Mediterranean-inspired.

The first hit is a snap pea and pea shoot salad dressed in bright mint pesto huddling around a delicate pouch of burrata cheese ($11) that melts in the mouth. Roasted pork belly ($14) sprinkled with fennel incites more mouth melting. If this pork belly were a person, it would sit on a gilded throne, wear robes of purple and be fed grapes by the dozen. Rich.

Another treat: Whole trout ($20) — with head and eyeballs intact — is prepared with exactness, no small feat at these oven temperatures. The skin is crispy, the meat is tender, and there’s a bed of bitter greens dressed with lemon vinaigrette and red onion. I know this sounds basic, but Doetzer is a master conductor, bringing out the best in his food.

The experience isn’t always exquisite: Sweet braised fennel ($7) is almost drowned out with a thick paste of tomato, and roasted cauliflower ($4) is browned but slightly undercooked with only a partial lemony zing. I may not have noticed if I hadn’t tried a more tender, zestier version another time.

You could get lost in all of these plates and be completely satisfied, but I strongly recommend at least sharing a pasta dish. The squid ink spaghettini ($17) is black and al dente, toppling with heaving mussels that are a vibrant orange.

And the stage is set for bucatini carbonara ($16) to be a standout. Thick, hollow noodles glistening with egg snake around melty Parmesan and hunks of smoky pork jowl. There’s an itty-bitty “but” here. It’s one note flat, and then I realize that I’m missing the sweetness and color of green peas. It’s still a beautiful dish.

If it’s pizza that you must have, then yes, please, have it. The 800-degree oven makes my dream pizza style: thin crust, springy and charred edges, and smoky character. The Fig and Pig ($13) is sweet with preserves, salty with prosciutto and tangy with Gorgonzola. It’s pricey — and worth it.

But don’t leave before getting the chocolate panna cotta ($6) that is exactly like the best, most beautiful chocolate pudding you will ever eat. Trust me.

There’s a strong emphasis on seasonal at Nota Bene, and Doetzer simply can’t be contained by his paper menu structured around the traditional Italian categories of antipasti, salads, pasta and yes, pizza. That means Nota Bene’s food will always remain surprising — and a guarantee for repeat visits. S

Nota Bene
Tuesdays-Saturdays 5-10 p.m.; Sunday 5-9 p.m.
2110 E. Main St.
477-3355
notabenerva.com

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