TICKET TO DINING: Enjoy Mediterranean tapas at Isabella

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2011

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Frank D. Quattrone
Ticket EditorIf the lovely name “Isabella” conjures up images of rocky beaches and quaint villages perched precariously on hilltops along the Mediterranean, that’s entirely by design.

Isabella, you recall, was the queen to King Ferdinand, the monarchs who supported Columbus’ epochal journey across the Atlantic to the New World. And in some subtle and even transparent ways, that’s precisely the intent of Executive Chef Michael Cappon, whose restaurant specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, including tapas and pizzas.

Isabella — situated on a hilly street within blocks of the Schuylkill — just happens to be a terrific restaurant that opened just eight months ago in a residential neighborhood in Conshohocken. The owner, Tom Riciter, actually named it after his daughter, one of the best servers at the charming restaurant.

The name is an excellent hook. The décor merits a second look. But the food, absolutely, is one for the books.

Cappon, the former sous chef at Stephen Starr’s El Vez and then director of culinary operations for Marathon Grill, has been a lifelong foodie and traveler, which might explain his fondness for ethnic cuisine.

He says, “My parents had a rule for us — I was the youngest of three. My mother was an amazing cook — and her rule was we were expected to try everything before saying no. Needless to say, I did a lot of prep work in the kitchen and I’ve tried a lot of different foods.”

The Cappon family, who lived in Syracuse, N.Y., traveled extensively — to Europe, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. It was there, in fact, at the Grand Old House on Grand Cayman Island, when he was only 10, that he met Philadelphia’s renowned Chef Tell. The young traveler, especially after Tell gave him a personal tour of his kitchen, was so impressed by the world-famous chef — his demeanor, his culinary knowledge and, yes, his great food — that he became hooked.

“I’ve always had a passion for great flavors,” says Cappon. “It was that, more than my travels, that inspired this menu. I had a great mentor in Justin Wright [the award-winning chef-owner of Justin’s in Syracuse]. He helped me fine-tune my skills. Aside from that, and reading the great cookbooks, I’ve had no formal schooling. I did it my own way.”

So why tapas?

“Our original concept was Spanish tapas with Neapolitan pizza,” he says. “But we’ve tweaked it a little. We want to put items on the menu that people will like. It still has a Spanish influence, but it’s more Mediterranean, with some French and Italian. It’s not as limiting.

“We only want to serve the best food we can, with the finest ingredients, including the best local produce and great imported foods. Our cheeses are imported. Our salmon is Scottish. Our tenderloin and bulls are grass-fed in Nebraska. Most of our seafood is local. The cheeses and tomatoes are all certified.

“We mess with them,” he laughed, “just enough to make them better.”

This is no idle boast. Although the chef and his reliable sous chefs, Jacob Brooks and David Coradetti, do offer a handful of ensaladas, verduras (basically side dishes) and “main plates” (more on those later), you might find that ordering their rotating nine-course Tapas Tasting Menu (at $27 per person, an unqualified bargain!) will yield even richer rewards.

The tasting menu the night of our visit began with the sumptuous Isabella Salad ($7 as a starter), local mixed greens, Valdeon blue cheese, marinated figs and toasted almonds tossed with a Pedro Ximenez vinaigrette.

Next up were the House Mozzarella (pulled in house), served with lavender honey and spiced Marcona almonds; Tuna Nicoise ($11 as a small plate), olive oil-blanched sushi grade ahi tuna with olives, capers, quail egg and caper berry; and Cochino Frito ($8 as a small plate), chili-dusted crispy pork belly with a sweet pea puree and pickled onions.

You might want to complement your meal with a tall glass of refreshing red or white sangria, specially made for the restaurant, or a bottle of one of the fine red, white or rosé Italian, Spanish or French wines the restaurant keeps on hand (a wine list partially developed by Cappon’s wife, Josette), or even one of the eight fine beers available on tap, including Guinness Irish Dry Stout and Ommegang Rare Vos Belgian dark ale.

After an intermezzo of Mojito Sorbet, the larger small plates resumed with one of the specialties of the house — Mussels ($8.50) served in a roasted tomato jus with a tall, crisp potato and arugula salad.

Isabella’s true signature dish came next. It’s Chef Cappon’s favorite creation — Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi ($7), an unalloyed delight you won’t find on any other menu, fashioned with a mousse-like house-made ricotta, brown butter, Reggiano Parmigiano and nutmeg and cooked in a cast iron pan.

After the final savory small plate, Pinchos de Carne ($8), chili and roasted garlic marinated beef skewers served with a porcini mushroom crema and a charred onion, came the Dessert Trio, a delectable arrangement of espresso crème, chocolate mousse with homemade whipped cream, and pear ginger sorbet.

Other small plates available at Isabella are petite Spanish Octopus ($12), slowly braised for two hours and then grilled, served with marinated fennel, toasted pine nuts and micro greens in a lemoncello vinaigrette; the ensalada Heirloom Beet Terrine ($8), roasted heirloom beets stacked with montrachet goat cheese and a sail of crispy Serrano ham in balsamic and olive oil; Buratta ($9), a fascinating trio of house-made fresh mozzarella purse, truffle honeycomb and spiced Marcona almonds; and another house specialty — pan-seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras served on a crisp chorizo chip in a fig reduction.

Main plates include the likes of Fruta del Mar ($16), sautéed shrimp, scallops and calamari, pine nuts, fresh basil, lemon zest and San Marzano tomatoes with fettuccine; Carne de Vaca ($23), dry aged New York strip with a blue cheese crust, sherry glaze, patatas bravas (seasoned fried potatoes with a tomato and chili aioli); and Salmon ($19) with Meyer lemon chutney, sweet onion risotto and sautéed spinach.

And you can’t go wrong ordering one of Isabella’s fine Neapolitan-style pizzas, which include the traditional Margherita ($12), topped with house-made fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomato and fresh basil; Fennel Salami ($14), also topped with broccoli rabe, caramelized onions, montrachet goat cheese and fontina frontal; and the Tartufo ($15), topped with garlic-scented wild mushrooms, truffle oil, prosciutto, fontina frontal, montrachet goat cheese, caramelized onion and thyme.

To quote one happy guest the night of our visit: “The whole restaurant smells of truffle oil.”

Not far from the truth, and the aromas reflecting the flavors Chef Cappon is so passionate about are certainly part of the ambience of Isabella, which is also distinguished by a high communal table (especially popular during Happy Hour) opposite the well-stocked wooden bar, by original paintings for sale on two walls, overhead fans (reminiscent of the film “Casablanca”), warm cinnamon and other earth tones and Mediterranean music in the background.

This 47-seat shrine to great Mediterranean food is open for lunch during the week and for dinner daily. Beer and wine dinners are also in the offing. Free parking is available at the Elm Street Square practically across the street from the restaurant.

Isabella, rescued from the shot-and-beer bar that occupied the space before its extensive renovation, is a welcome oasis in a residential neighborhood and further proof that Conshohocken’s recent restaurant renaissance continues with class and style and prices that any family or food lover can ill afford to resist.

Isabella

382 E. Elm St.,
Conshohocken, PA 19429
484-532-7470
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