Location: 382 E. Elm St., Conshohocken; (484) 532-7470, barisabella.com.
Cuisine: Mediterranean with a hint of Italian.
Cost: Small plates and pizza $7-$14; entrées $14-$25.
Attire: Casual but smart.
Atmosphere: Comfortable and intimate; can get a bit loud.
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m.
Extras: Happy hour Monday-Friday 5-7 p.m.; late-night menu Friday-Saturday 10 p.m.-midnight. Tango lessons and dancing on the second floor.
These days, a lot of local eateries are attempting the tapas thing. Many, though, misinterpret what tapas-style eating is actually supposed to be. Small plates aren’t really meant to be scaled-down portions of larger menu items, but rather something to savor before the main course.
Jose Garces sets the standard for Spanish tapas at Old City’s Amada. Locally, Matador in Wayne has recently taken advantage of the trend with mixed results. Foodies can now add one more tapas-themed spot to the list: Isabella, located on rowhome-lined Elm Street in Conshohocken.
Up until October, when Isabella opened, chef Michael Cappon had never done tapas. The Syracuse, N.Y., native previously worked in Center City as a sous chef at El Vez, and as director of culinary operations at Marathon Grill. You shouldn’t notice his lack of tapas experience—though Isabella’s culinary reach is a bit broader than the strictly Spanish variety. Cappon executes a thoughtful, Mediterranean-inspired menu of both small and larger plates, plus Neopolitan-style pizzas.
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The restaurant occupies the first floor of a two-story building, and it isn’t large by any means. The convivial atmosphere in the 47-seat space is heightened by a wraparound bar. Burnt-orange walls nicely contrast dark wood tables studded with flickering candles, while banquette bench seating lines the farthest wall.
Isabella offers a budget-friendly happy hour during the work week, so the noise level can get a bit disruptive if you’re dining on the earlier side. The drink list is substantial, the draft beer selection offering an impressive mix of local craft brews, along with options from elsewhere, including Belgium and Germany.
You’ll also find red and white sangria to go with a respectable wine list featuring almost a dozen varieties by the glass and even more by the bottle. Very few are Spanish, but one exception is the Segura Viudas sparkling cava rosé, whose crisp fruitiness goes well with Cappon’s Spanish- and Italian-inspired ingredients.
Cappon’s ambitious menu displays his unique flavor combinations. The burrata was a perfect example, its fresh mozzarella purse and creamy ricotta insides perfectly complemented by truffle honeycomb and paprika-spiced Marcona almonds. The seared, thinly sliced New Jersey scallop medallions were light and refreshing atop watermelon slices and a healthy handful of microgreens.
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Our heaping bowl of mussels was topped with a mound of crisp shoestring potatoes to help sop up the luscious, buttery broth. (You’ll definitely need more bread to get every last drop.)
All of the meat and poultry used at Isabella comes from smaller farms where animals are humanely raised and grass-fed. One result was the melt-in-your-mouth, chili-and-roasted-garlic-marinated beef skewers, with a mild porcini mushroom crema and charred onion. For non-meat types, the homemade spinach ricotta gnocchi are cooked in a cast-iron pan with brown butter, Parmigiano Reggiano and a hint of nutmeg. Tasty, but a bit heavy.
The small plates go well with an Isabella salad—local mixed greens, blue cheese, marinated figs and toasted almonds with a flavorful Pedro Ximenez dressing. The heirloom beet terrine is as delicious to eat as it is to look at. The tricolor stack is sandwiched with goat cheese and thin slices of crisp Serrano ham, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
Perfect for sharing, the Tartufo pizza is an earthy blend of garlicy mushrooms, caramelized onions, prosciutto, fontina and Montrachet cheeses, truffle oil, and thyme. Also delicious, the sausage pizza’s homemade meat and mozzarella are combined with San Marzano tomatoes and toasted peppers.
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Among the main dishes, the red snapper came with a crisp coating of shredded potatoes. The accompanying pepper coulis provided a spicy bite atop a wilted toasted-almond-and-spinach salad. Farmed but deep-water sourced, the fish was also served with a sweet onion risotto that was more like a semi-creamy rice pilaf. If you’re not in the mood for seafood, there’s also a Kobe burger, a chile-dusted organic chicken breast, and a nice steak selection.
Desserts were good, but not necessarily the restaurant’s strong suit. A nicely portioned trio included a thick chocolate mousse with almonds and whipped cream, a creamy-rich espresso crème brûlée, and a light pear-ginger sorbet.
THE SKINNY: Mediterranean tapas is Isabella’s selling point—and rightly so. Chef Cappon expertly incorporates as many fresh, locally sourced ingredients as possible. The salads, pizzas and seafood-heavy entrées are worth the trip, too. Reasonable prices and a friendly atmosphere don’t hurt, either.