I first visited Notti Bianche on the first floor of the GWU Inn very soon after they opened. That one visit left me with fond memories of their crispy roast chicken and questions about their nontraditional (at times) pasta dishes, but of course that was only one visit and it was close to their opening.
Obviously, Notti Bianche (translates to White Nights in Italian) has come into their own since then, because recently (or maybe since they opened, I'm a little oblivious at times) people have been talking about Notti Bianche quite a lot. I wondered, "Was I missing something?" So I made a couple return trips to reassess my original opinions.
I'll start with what I found good...Executive Chef Anthony Chittum makes a nice hearty minestrone made with lardo. I'm almost depressed that spring is here, which means that the wonderfully hearty soups of winter will start disappearing from menus.
If you're unfamiliar with what lardo is, it's basically...no, not basically -- it is 100% unadulterated pork fat, cured and smoked. The minestone soup was one of my favorite things on Notti Bianche's menu and quickly reminded me how mediocre the minestrone that I've been making at home is. I think I need to find some lardo rather than the ham hock that I've been using to flavor my stock. What is it with chefs that come from Equinox and their soups?!
If you are brave enough to eat sweetbreads (come on, grow a pair people!) the crispy veal sweetbreads should be ordered by your group. Now they're not the best I've ever had (that honor goes to Galileo), but they're crispy, juicy and served with seasonal ingredients. The current menu has them with squash caponata, pine nuts and aged balsamic now, which are mostly just distractions from the big enchilada, but add subtle flavor to the dish.
For a salad course, you should try Notti Bianchi's tender baby octopus salad with firm cannelini beans and lemon. The octopus isn't rubbery and the charring gives it a wonderfully smokey flavor. I've had some octopus elsewhere that had more the consistency of overcooked chicken reheated in a microwave -- which doesn't make for a very good salad.
At Notti Bianche, the entrees aren't overshadowed by the appetizers and second courses which means your meal doesn't peak early. The roast chicken from when I first visited is gone and has been replaced with a crispy-skinned poussin (or spring chicken or cornish game hen), served with polenta cake, foie gras and grapes. All combine to make hearty, meaty and sensuous flavors.
While there are many Italian wines on Notti Bianche's wine list, there are also wines from other countries like Greece, Argentina, and Australia. Danny Boylen, restaurant and bar manager, does a hell of a job managing the service and wine. One
of the key indicators of this? Most of the staff actually seems happy to be
working at the restaurant. All too often you hear staff bitching to each
other while the boss isn't around -- not at Notti Bianche. Oh, and the wine list is pretty kickass as well.
From the Notti Bianche web site, "at Notti Bianche, we are committed to
a comprehensive wine program which reflects our passion for wine and
our pursuit of excellence. Our list focuses on 'boutique' wines from
very small vineyards where the winemakers are involved in the entirety
of the process. We believe that we have crafted a list that harmonizes
with our food and enhances your dining experience." You'll find many bottles of wine in the $30 to $40 price range, and the wines are interesting and different than you find everywhere else. I always like to see wines other than the typical Mezza Corona Pinot Grigio.
Now before you continue reading, you need to know that for me, Italian
food is all about the pasta. Maybe that's a little short-sighted, but
that's just what I like. I can go to an Italian restaurant and order a
pasta course for my main course and if it's good, I'll be very content.
Ok now for the not so good...(and it's just my opinion, and many others have said they love the pastas here) but I just don't care for the pasta dishes at Notti Bianche. I think I just always find something wrong with them. For instance, the ricotta gnocchi has completely wrong texture for gnocchi. The large lumps of gnocchi combined with the meaty trumpet mushrooms have a heavy texture that I just can't get over. There's just something about a light, melt-in-your-mouth potato gnocchi that this dish is missing. When the server asked how I liked the gnocchi, I was honest, "I didn't care much for it." They were surprised I didn't like it, stating that it was their most popular pasta dish. Perhaps it's just me?
I'm also torn on how I feel about the risotto. The last time I was there, the featured risotto was a saffron risotto with pork belly. While I thought the flavor of the risotto with saffron and pork belly were a fun combination, the risotto also seemed overly al dente.
As you'll see from their online menu, prices range from $6 to $27, which makes Notti Bianche pretty reasonably priced, and below average for restaurants of this caliber. My checks have come in at about $100 to $150, depending on how expensive a bottle of wine and the number of courses I've ordered.
824 New Hampshire Ave, NW
Hours of Operation:
Mon-Fri 7AM to 10AM, Sat-Sun 8AM to 10AM
Sun-Thu: 5PM-10PM, Fri-Sat 5PM-11PM
Dress Code: Business Casual.
Parking: Valet ($6) and street if you can find it.
Smoking: Allowed at the bar.
Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 2 out of 4 diapers. Dining room isn't huge, and the atmosphere is a little too quiet to warrant bringing a baby to. However, if you can time it right and go while your child is sleeping, you're probably golden.