More than 30 years ago, I took night school real estate courses with Jay Lamont, then director of Temple University’s Real Estate Institute and host of a three-hour, call-in radio show called “All About Real Estate,” which was on WCAU radio every Sunday morning for decades. One suggestion Lamont emphatically made to me more than once was: “I would urge you to buy up row houses in Conshohocken. You can find vacant row houses in a rundown neighborhood and buy them for next to nothing. I can assure you that Conshohocken will eventually become another Queen Village. Those rundown row houses will be worth a fortune. The location is ideal; it’s right off the expressway and is close to Philly.”
I did not take Lamont’s advice. If I did, my wife and I might be touring the wine country in France right now instead of clipping coupons to use at ShopRite. Those vacant row houses he referred to have been redeveloped and gentrified and are now selling for a few hundred thousand dollars each. And the residents are being serviced by upscale restaurants like Stella Blu, Blackfish, Spampinato’s, Totaro’s, Pepperoncini, Coyote Crossing and as of last October, Isabella (at 382 East Elm Street).
“I redesigned this place completely because of all the new residents in the area,” explained owner Tom Richter, who named the new Mediterranean restaurant after his 21-year-old daughter.
Richter, who floats around the dining room schmoozing with customers, is quite the entrepreneur. He owns a water ice business in Puerto Rico as well as the former 401 Diner at 4th and Fayette Streets in Conshohocken. He is now renovating it and plans to reopen it with the super name “The Conshy-entious Diner.”
When I first learned about Isabella a few weeks ago, I went online to see what other customers were saying about it. I checked out four local restaurant websites — menupages.com, yelp.com,zagat.com and chowhound.com — and found numerous raving reviews but also lots of complaints, mostly about an unpleasant “owner,” a rude “hostess” and dishes that came out too quickly and filled up every inch of the not-so-big tables.
Most owners, when asked about negative online comments, get very defensive. To his great credit, however, Richter did not make excuses.
“Yes, these comments hurt, and they are correct,” he wrote in an email. “The ‘owner’ they refer to is a man who against my orders represented himself as the owner. The ‘hostess’ I assume was a woman who at 75 and adorable and very French was too confused for the job. They are both gone, partially as a result of notes like these. We have also started staggering orders so that there are not more than two plates per customer on the table at any time.”
Based on my recent visit, Isabella has definitely worked hard to heal its wounds. Isabella is a great-looking, bi-level property (dance lessons are actually offered on the second floor) with vaulted ceilings, huge windows, hardwood tables and floors, a long communal table in the middle and a stunning bar. It seats 47 for dining, 14 more at the bar and 20 to 25 on an outdoor patio that should be finished in the upcoming months.
The executive chef at Isabella, Michael Cappon, who started in the restaurant business at age 15 as a dishwasher and eventually made a name for himself as a chef at Marathon and Stephen Starr’s El Vez, definitely makes food that is “more-ish.” In other words, when you taste it, you want more. Cappon has a sensibility towards his food; he is not trying to strip mine conventional Mediterranean cuisine but rather do it as well as anyone in the area.
Some of Cappon’s creations are among the best dishes I’ve had all year. The gnocchi appetizer, for example, combines soft pillows of pasta with homemade ricotta cheese, brown butter and a whisper of nutmeg into a magical revelation ($7). Another sublime invention that I cannot wait to try again is the appetizer that combines wild mushrooms, parmesan cheese and the most sensuous, palate-teasing liquid pearls of truffle risotto ($5). (Both of these dishes might get you in trouble with the cholesterol police, but I would be glad to bail you out.) Twelve-inch pizzas, made in an outdoor oven, are thin-crusted and reasonably priced between $12 and $15. We also tried a Tartufo with a cornucopia of garlic-scented wild mushrooms, truffle oil, Montrachet goat cheese and caramelized onions.
A red snapper entrée ($20), carefully rendered with a potato crust, pepper coulis and toasted almond and spinach salad, is typical of the chef’s unfussy contemporary fare that showcases the Mediterranean diet’s laser focus on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. A dessert of homemade bread pudding with vanilla ice cream was soft and redolent of classic bananas foster in New Orleans.
The portion sizes are nice, and our server, Tyler, was terrific. There are some good wine choices by the glass, such as the Sebastiani Chardonnay, as well as a fine selection of craft beers and very tasty sangria. Isabella also has a popular happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, that offers half-price drafts, $5 martinis and $3.50 small plates.
Unfortunately, I visited Isabella just a few days before Cappon initiated something that I find almost unbelievable: an eight-course tapas tasting menu for just $27 per person. I will definitely return to try it out.
“These are obviously small portions, but there will definitely be more than enough food to fill anyone up,” Cappon said. “I wanted to give diners the opportunity to experience dishes that they might otherwise never have considered. Once they taste these small portions, my hope is that they will want to come back and order the same dishes at full size.”
If you go:
382 E. Elm St.,
Conshohocken, PA 19429