What I love about my life is that I am fortunate enough to have several pools of friends that I am able to slip in and out of as the world sees fit. I’m aware that is a gift and I do my best not to take it for granted. That being said, one of the pools I love the most is the one that only forms on a rare basis. Way, way back in late January/early February of 2014 I was fortunate enough to become friends with five other amazing folks who were all bloggers (at the time). Dubbing ourselves the Richmond Food Coalition, we quickly formed a bond based upon a passion for food and a deep respect for each other’s talents. With life being super busy it is hard to get together as often as we would like. That’s what makes our dinners together even more amazing. So, when we arranged to go to Nota Bene in August, I cleared my calendar and polished my spoon. It was Food Coalition time!!
Nota Bene is the brick and mortar to long-running food truck Pizza Tonight. From a concept that started as pizza parties in a backyard with homemade sauce and fresh ingredients to a full-fledged Italian eatery is the kind of journey that has helped establish Richmond as a culinary destination. It’s the traditional American dream played out in the world of food.
Nota Bene is located on E. Main just outside of Shockoe Bottom (at least in my opinion). It is a very large space with a warm brick interior and large front windows that provide bountiful natural light. The specials menu is a giant blackboard that hangs on the wall. The bar is invitingly stocked with craft beers, quality booze and wines which I know nothing about. The large brick pizza oven glows merrily and produces wonderful aromas that drift around the room like friendly apparitions of dinner future. In short, it’s a place that inspires happiness on looks alone.
After plantlings were exchanged, hugs given and general excitement at seeing each other stirred up, we sat down at the table next to the large front window. As always, the business of drinks and starters took precedence to general pleasantries. We agreed to split a bottle of wine (all I can tell you is that it was a delicious red) and a few of us also got beers. The draft selection was heavily Virginia based with a wide variety of styles. Something for all those who enjoy an adult beverage.
We ordered several of the special starters. I distinctly recall the sardine fillets and the giant bowl of mussels. The sardines were presented in olive oil, lemon juice and fresh Italian parsley. They were fresh and bright, complemented by the fresh warm bread that I put them on. It always amazes me how quickly people turn down sardines without even trying them. This plate highlighted the beauty that can be found in these tiny little fish. The bowl of mussels was quite bountiful. They were cooked with peppers and leeks in a broth that would have made some soups jealous. The mussels were steamed perfectly, making them tender to the chew. When combined with the light onion flavor from the leeks and the heat of the peppers you couldn’t ask for more, really. Starters alone could have had me leaving happy.
As Nota Bene started as a wood-fired pizza joint, I went the obvious route with a pizza. It’s a no brainer really. You don’t go to a taco joint for the hot dogs. You aren’t a savage. So, pizza it had to be — sausage pizza, to be exact. With broccolini and ricotta over a red sauce. All the good words on one pizza. I was super stoked. To accompany such a delightful main course I ordered the roasted cauliflower. I love cauliflower not only for its taste, but for its versatility. Mashed, grilled, roasted, stir-fried, steamed… it’s good. Plus, it’s healthy, from what I’m told. Can’t beat that part either. Others at the table ordered pizzas and pastas. We really got a sampling of the menu.
My cauliflower came out first. This bowl was legit. I think that’s truly the only word for it. Each bite was its own culinary adventure as your mouth traversed the world of flavor. The cauliflower itself had retained a refreshing crunch during its roasting. It wasn’t soggy or limp as veggies can be. There was a light brown roast to it giving a savoury smoky taste. The chilies provided little surprise pockets of mild heat that never burned too hot or overwhelmed the tongue. The capers provided just a hint of vinegar each time one burst in your mouth. That was balanced beautifully by the lemon juice. In fact, those flavors combined to give a fresh spring-time taste to the dish. As my fork went to work I optimistically hoped that each piece speared would regrow as two new pieces on my plate, much the way the heads of the Hydra of Lerna did. Sadly, that was not to be and I appropriately wept inside upon putting the last piece in my mouth.
My personal food tragedy was to be short lived though as a new hero arrived to bring joy to the multitudes of tastebuds and slay the hunger. My sausage pizza proved to be no dainty personal pan size. This was a hand-stretched, wood-fired thin crust champion of the people. This pizza could have been easily split between two people, but I am a fat kid with heart and determination so it was all for me.
The crust… oh the crust.
First off, you could taste the freshness in the dough. It wasn’t a mass-produced, flash-frozen, thaw-as-you-need ball of dough. This was fresh, made in-house with fresh ingredients by hands that strive to obtain quality. Yes, I tasted all that. Then it was pulled into a thin, yet supportive base for the toppings. Once it was cooked, it crisped beautifully with touches of char along the crust, like dark rouge applied expertly to the cheeks of a gorgeous woman. A nice layer of sauce was applied, neither overly thick or perilously thin. A comforting layer, like a warm tomato blanket draped upon a couch. The sauce was flavorful without being overpowering. The tomato was tamed by the garlic and other Italian seasonings that lived inside the sauce. Still, even though it was reined in and balanced out, the tomato couldn’t help but show off a bit. I applaud its efforts because it was tasteful.
Finally, there was the toppings. Meaty, flavor-packed sausage. Sweet, crunchy stalks of broccolini roasted ever so slightly. Dollops of creamy, rich ricotta cheese interspersed between it all. Each bite was worth savoring, yet it was impossible to do so as you just wanted the next one in your mouth. Truly a wood-fired masterpiece from the first stage of creation to the last morsel on the plate.
As the night ticked on, the drinks were emptied and the food consumed. Conversation never waned and laughs never ceased to be. At one point I was temporarily transported back in time to dinner with my giant family back in NY, a place where the food was cooked with passion and the people who shared it with me were exemplary examples of humanity. At Nota Bene that night, I was in the presence of a feeling that intense. It was a beautiful combination of great people and excellent food in a building that strived to make you feel comfortable. I highly encourage you to attempt to capture that feeling for yourself one night soon. Get a bottle of wine, split some wood-fired pizzas and laugh around the table with those people in your life you value. We don’t have the chance to do that forever. Until next time readers, may your crust be crispy and your friendships everlasting.