by Len Lear

The executive chef at Isabella, Michael Cappon, made a name for himself as a chef at Marathon and Stephen Starr's El Vez. (Photos by Len Lear)

More than 30 years ago I took three night school real estate courses with Jay Lamont, then-director of the Temple University Real Estate Institute and host of a three-hour call-in radio show, “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 rowhouses in a rundown neighborhood and buy them for next to nothing. I can assure you that Conshohocken will eventually become another Queen Village. (Twenty years later I’m sure he would have added the names Manayunk, Northern Liberties and the Graduate Hospital area.) Those rundown rowhouses 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 50-cents-off coupons to use at ShopRite. Those vacant rowhouses 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, Totaro’s, Pepperoncini and Coyote Crossing.

And as of last October, you can add Isabella, at 382 E. Elm St. (at Cherry), in a corner building that was formerly home to Jerry’s Jumping Joint, an African American bar. “I redesigned this place completely because of all the new residents in the area,” explained owner Tom Richter, who named the new Mediterranean restaurant for his 21-year-old daughter.

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 Web sites —  menupages.com, yelp.com, zagat.com and chowhound.com — and found lots of raves 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. One clever blogger used the term “helicopter hostess,” one I will probably co-opt myself when it is appropriate.

Most owners, when asked about negative online comments, get very defensive, alleging that people only post restaurant comments on a Web site when they are upset and not when they enjoy a meal. (This is not true because most comments posted on restaurant Web sites are favorable.) To his great credit, however, Richter did not get defensive or make excuses. Quite the opposite.

“Ouch,” he wrote in an email. “Yes. These comments hurt, and they are correct. 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 our 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 months to come. They could use some acoustic paneling because the generally acceptable din can at times be unbearable.

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 sensible-shoes sensibility towards his food. He is not trying to strip-mine conventional Mediterranean cuisine but simply to do it as well as anyone in the area.

Some of Cappon’s creations were among the best dishes we’ve had all year. The gnocchi appetizer, for example, combines soft pillows of pasta with housemade ricotta cheese, brown butter and a whisper of nutmeg into a magical revelation ($7). Another sublime invention that we 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 tried a Tartufo with a cornucopia of garlic-scented wild mushrooms, truffle oil, Montrachet goat cheese, caramelized onions, etc.

Owner Tom Richter started with nothing but wound up turning old mansions into apartment buildings and failed restaurants into successful ones, such as Coyote Crossing, Isabella and 401 Diner in Conshohocken.

A red snapper entree, carefully rendered with a potato crust, pepper coulis and toasted almond and spinach salad, is typical of the chef’s unfussy contemporary fare, spare on fat and oils, showcasing the Mediterranean diet’s laser focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients ($20). A dessert of homemade bread pudding with vanilla ice cream was meltingly soft, redolent of the classic Bananas Foster of New Orleans.

Our server, Tyler, was terrific, but this affable young man who has a Master’s degree in social work told us he is leaving soon to go to Haiti to do humanitarian work for a charitable organization. I know it is selfish to say so, but by delivering dishes like the gnocchi, the risotto and the red snapper, Tyler was already doing humanitarian work. (Only kidding. I am well aware that his work in Haiti will be 1000 times more important.)

There are some good wine choices by the glass, such as the Sebastiani Chardonnay, and the portion sizes are good, but the card on the table listing the wines by the glass does not list any prices, which is gross. There is a fine selection of craft beers and a very tasty Sangria. Peripatetic owner Tom Richter, who floats around the dining room shmoozing with customers, is quite the entrepreneur. He owns a water ice business in Puerto Rico, e.g., 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.”

We 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. “These are obviously small portions,” said Michael, “but there will definitely be more than enough food to fill anyone up. I wanted to give diners the opportunity to experience dishes that 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.”

There is a huge, free public parking lot a half-block down on Cherry Street (make a right turn at Elm and Cherry). Isabella has a popular Happy Hour from 5 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, that offers half-price drafts, $5 martinis and $3.50 for small plates. They are open seven days a week for dinner and lunch Monday through Friday. For more information, call 484-532-7470 or visit www.barisabella.com.