Isabella, a small restaurant serving local, seasonal American bistro-style food in Dedham Square, opened in August 1995. Over the years, it has undergone renovations and menu changes to grow along with the community and adapt to changes in restaurant dining, but it remains the same at the core.
On the evening we visited, the sous-chef was Lucarme-Pierre Louis (known as “Luc”), who has been at Isabella from the very beginning, when he started as a dishwasher shortly after emigrating from Haiti.
The entrance to Isabella leads right into the bar area, with the host stand just ahead. There’s lots of pendant lighting over the spacious bar and the rows of tables in the dining room. A chalkboard hanging on the far side of the bar lists the wine specials. At the end of the dining room, which features a decorative mural running the length of one wall, is the open kitchen, where diners can catch a glimpse of their meals being prepared. Isabella’s old exterior sign hangs at the back of the dining room, a reminder of the restaurant’s past.
We were seated soon after arriving on a busy Wednesday evening. Our waitress greeted us and brought over a couple of soft, warm rolls along with a chickpea spread. Similar to hummus but without the tahini, the spread was light and flavorful and surrounded by small pools of olive oil. It held us over while we waited for our appetizers to arrive.
For starters, the menu offers a few salads and appetizers, ranging from mussels with hard cider sauce to shrimp skewers with spicy aïoli to flatbread pizza. We ordered duck confit egg rolls ($13) and beef carpaccio ($14).
The egg rolls arrived hot and lightly glistening, sitting atop a bed of spinach, with a bowl of peach agrodolce on the side. The egg rolls were crispy on the outside and packed with vegetables and a touch of duck confit. A little more duck would have been welcome. The agrodolce added a complementary sweet note, and its freshness balanced the fried rolls.
The thin slices of beef carpaccio were neatly arranged on a plate and topped with capers and drizzles of truffle aïoli. The truffle flavor was apparent but not overpowering. A small pile of pickled red onions with a garnish of microgreens adorned the center of the plate, and some pieces of pecorino were scattered on top. The onions, aïoli, capers, and pecorino added saltiness, earthiness, and brininess to the beef dish, making for satisfying bites.
Shortly after we polished off the appetizers, our entrees arrived. The pork chop ($24), cooked a perfect medium-rare, had nice grill flavor and garlicky notes. It was served with tender-crisp broccolini and a polenta cake. The polenta cake was reminiscent of arancini with its crunchy outside encasing a creamy, cheesy filling. The goat-cheese and polenta mixture was studded with sun-dried tomatoes, which added small bursts of flavor.
Smoked mozzarella and basil ravioli ($23) show the kitchen’s inventive side with pasta. The oversize ravioli are served in a puttanesca sauce full of capers and olives (both green and black), as the name would suggest, plus chicken and asparagus. Each bite of ravioli yields bacony flavor and rich cheese.
Isabella also offers a number of seafood-based entrees. Luc describes himself as a seafood guy and claims the bouillabaisse and swordfish as his favorite dishes. Salmon and a shrimp and mussel scampi are other options.
For land lovers, in addition to the pork chop and ravioli, entrees range from Bell & Evans chicken to strip steak to short ribs. There are also specials each night that can be found on Isabella’s website.
The desserts are made in house by pastry chef Ruth Armstrong, who is also a waitress at the restaurant. The cornmeal cake ($7) is the ideal end-of-summer dessert. It’s served warm and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, juicy summer berries, and Grand Marnier sauce. The berry juices soak the husky cake just enough to soften it pleasantly.
The walnut brownie sundae ($7) is made for those seeking something rich and chocolaty at the end of their meal. The brownies seem underbaked, in a good way, making them more like triangles of gooey fudge. They’re topped with vanilla ice cream, fresh whipped cream, a sprinkling of walnuts, and warm chocolate sauce.
Everyone running around the restaurant seems happy and gives off a vibe that they really enjoy it. Luc confirms that he loves what he does. A manager stops by to check on diners throughout dinner service. A testament to the friendly service and good food, the restaurant sees plenty of regulars, and new diners are always wandering in as well.
Isabella uses local ingredients whenever possible, sourcing them from Kinnealey, Russo’s, and Captain Marden’s, among others, Luc tells us.
In addition to dinner, Isabella is open for lunch Monday through Friday. The lunch menu has similar options to the dinner menu, plus a variety of sandwiches to choose from. The Local in West Newton is Isabella’s sister restaurant with the same owner, Frank Santo.
Megan Ginsberg writes about food on her blog, Delicious Dishings (megan-deliciousdishings.blogspot.com).