Food Review: Isabella’s Bistro & Salumeria 

Sterling service and some classic Italian hits bring the love to the South Side.

click to enlarge Pork chops sauced with brandy cream, Granny Smith apples and pancetta are one of the highlights of Isabella’s Bistro & Salumeria.

Scott Elmquist

Pork chops sauced with brandy cream, Granny Smith apples and pancetta are one of the highlights of Isabella’s Bistro & Salumeria.

Who doesn’t appreciate a man with a mission?

“My name is Sterling and I’m going to make sure your whole evening start to finish is a good one.”

Our amiable server at Isabella’s Bistro & Salumeria is nothing if not enthusiastic, later dropping off our entrées with the pronouncement, “They’re going to be delicious.”

Husband-and-wife team Marie and Brian Steele got a foothold in Midlothian two years ago when they took over Chesterfield County’s seafood bastion, Crab Louie’s, next door to their new spot. Isabella’s is their first ground-up restaurant, conceived as a tribute to their Italian immigrant grandparents who moved here after World War I.

The star of the compact dining room is a large table that sits as a centerpiece impressively lighted from above by Mason jars of assorted colors containing tiny lights, all hung from two vintage doors on the ceiling. The overall effect is enchanting, like that of a youthful summer night collecting fireflies in jars.

Tables line two walls of windows and upholstered chairs make for a nice upgrade from standard restaurant seating. During three visits, I’ve yet to see anyone other than an employee at the small bar at the back of the room. Why is that? Even Italian grandmothers like a nip now and again, as evidenced by the cocktail menu ($7-$11) featuring Nonna’s cosmopolitan, billed as an Amaretto twist on the usual cosmo, done Nonna’s way for an Italian version. The wine list ($6.95/$12 glass, $22-$95 bottle) maintains strict allegiance to Italian and Californian offerings.

Music ranges from the great American songbook to, inexplicably, classic French pop. It’s never loud or intrusive and the decibel challenges of conversation so common in city restaurants are foreign here. The feel is that of a wholesome, family dining spot.

Ditto the menu. Pulling from more than just the Steele’s grandparents’ origins — Abruzzi, Calabria and Naples — the menu reads as solidly traditional Italian-American. No surprises here. The dinner menu doubles as the lunch menu, offering smaller portions for $3 less than the dinner prices and without the starter salads. But tradition abounds, and even at lunch your server will arrive bearing a basket of house-made bread and dipping oil.

Lobster ravioli ($17), sauced with pink alfredo, comes highly touted by the server on my first visit. While the ravioli are swollen with lobster meat, the blend of mozzarella, ricotta and cream cheese filling overpowers the delicacy of the lobster. Top neck clams casino ($8.95) are likewise lost under a tomato sauce that asserts itself over the clams and pancetta beneath.

Salad dressings are made in-house and the quality shows. Aside from being overdressed with apple vinaigrette, the Isabella chopped greens ($12.95) are a fetching behemoth of a salad that brings together an all-star cast of dried cherries, candied pecans, red onions, cherry tomatoes, bits of crispy pancetta and goat cheese that resonate with every taste bud. But the caprese salad ($12.95) suffers from mediocre tomatoes, making me wonder why restaurants don’t use roasted red peppers for a caprese until the real thing is in the kitchen.

Pork chops ($18) find their soul mates in brandy cream sauce, Granny Smith apples and strips of crispy pancetta, a strapping plate of food not for the faint of appetite. Fettuccine provides an al dente net for jumbo shrimp piccata ($23), awash in the flavors of lemon, garlic and capers. It’s the kind of dish you’ll wish you were eating on the Amalfi Coast. Less distinctive is chicken saltimbocca ($17), the flavors of white wine, sage and butter somewhat vague and tentative. Not so a side of Brussels sprouts ($2.75), which deserves a round of applause for its crispy texture and honeyed sweetness.

Not every server begins my meals at Isabella’s by stating a goal to ensure my ultimate happiness the way Sterling does, but all smilingly strive to please. When I inquire about an estimated opening date for the salumeria, my server explains that their first priority was getting the patio finished and that the market would follow. “We’re getting there,” she says cheerfully.

The same can be said for Isabella’s. S

Isabella’s Bistro & Salumeria
Mondays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-8 p.m.; Tuesdays-Wednesdays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-8:30 p.m.; Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-9 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
1358 Sycamore Square
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