Tucked away in a corner space that normally would house a neighborhood watering hole, Isabella, 382 E. Elm St., Conshohocken, is a classy yet comfortable eatery specializing in Mediterranean-inspired tapas and pizzas. And, while bigger and more complex fare are available, the real fun is in sharing a number of small dishes instead of investing in just one big plate, especially considering the $3.50 small plates during happy hour (5-7 p.m. weekdays).
Isabella and head chef Michael Cappon are best when they deliver clean and composed plates with bold and sometimes-unexpected flavors. The scallops ($11) were expertly seared and resting on top of a watermelon ceviche, making the dish supremely refreshing. The same could be said of the grilled Spanish octopus ($12) with marinated fennel and lemoncello vinaigrette.
Bring an army of Tic-Tacs with you if you try the camarones ($11), jumbo shrimp steamed and accompanied with enough garlic butter to kill an army of vampires once you’re done dipping the shrimp. Damage to your breath aside, they were tasty.
Our inner carnivore was doing backflips over the chuletas de cordero ($12), petite lamb chops dusted with black pepper and served with fig and sherry reduction. Give us a pile of these chops and a football game and we’re done for Sunday.
The best of the small plates was the foie gras ($9), pan-seared on a chorizo chip in a fig reduction. The richness of the foie gras is tempered well by the spice of the chorizo and the sweetness of the fig. Another dish we couldn’t get enough of was the spinach ricotta gnocchi ($7), which were fluffy and lightly bathed in brown butter and Parmigiana.
Isabella also serves up tasty salads. The Spanish Caesar was a brighter take on the traditional version, thanks to the presence of piquillo peppers and a generous portion of white anchovies. The La Isabella ($7) was a pleasantly complex convergence of flavors and textures with valdeon cheese, figs and almonds tossed with mixed greens.
Isabella does a bang-up job on its pizzas, which are thin, crispy and run the gamut between traditional Italian flavors such as the Margherita ($12) and earthier Mediterranean flavors like bacon and heirloom tomato ($14).
We only had enough room left in our gullets to share one of the big plates and, while many of the small plates set the bar high, the red snapper ($20) had decent mojo. The snapper was cooked perfectly and well spiced atop a bed of spinach. But the three-ring circus of the small plates dominated.
Things picked up considerably for dessert. The espresso crème brûlée was delightful, delivering just enough of a coffee-laden kick to offset the sugary coma the dish threatened to bring on.
Isabella has a comfortable atmosphere and a well thought-out menu. You’ll get the best dining experience there by going small and going often.