I would like to introduce you to a very special lady...
What you'll notice first—besides the menacing rebar in a support post near the man slicing grooves into a concrete slab with a huge saw outside Isabella's French doors—is that the waiters don't pretend to know more than they do. They skip the bullshit jig and invest in filling their mental deficits. We scan the wine list and zero in on a 2004 Feudi di San Gregorio Rubrato Aglianico—a red. Feudi di San Gregorio is from a southern village of Campania. Have you tasted it? Do you know its body?
No. I know nothing about it, our waiter says. Give me a minute. He returns with the dark bottle. He cradles it. "I was reading about the winemaker," he says. "All of this art is from this very small village [Sorbo Serpico] where these wines come from. It's all in and around an old medieval village. It hasn't changed at all...All of these pieces of art are out of their homes and castles."
Mozzarella caprese $11
Tuna tartare $9
Crab cakes $10
Sea bass $26
Italian cheesecake $6.50
The whole time he says this, he strokes the label—a Byzantine-era mosaic. The wine itself is joyful with firm ripe fruit, a gently rugged grip and heady floral wisps that fuse into a balanced loitering finish. It's made from Aglianico, a grape variety brought to Campania by the Greeks in roughly the seventh century B.C., which, for all practical purposes, makes it an indigenous Italian grape.
The striking thing, though, is this waiter knew nothing of it, but he read up on it in the few moments between request and presentation. He blurted his discoveries with earnest giddiness. On the one hand this illustrates shoddy training—a lack of a tasting regimen designed to etch menu and bottle stocks in the server's mind with such fluency that credible wine suggestions can be easily rattled off for pairing with risotto. On the other hand, this naiveté is far more fun than trading wine notes with a server starched into brittleness. On another hand still, the wine glasses are thickly hazed with dishwasher streaks.
The conversation seamlessly shifts from art on the bottles to art on the walls. Like the wine, it's imported from Italy, he says. "There she is," he points to the restroom portal. "That's Isabella." She reclines. Sensuousness streams over her like hot chocolate sauce engulfs an ice cream scoop. From this distance it looks like a sketch, with all of the wispy grays and gentle blurs that gauzily cloak what looks like post-orgasmic bewilderment. On closer inspection, Isabella is done up in muted grays, yellows and greens with a haze created via thick, deliberate brush strokes.
What's a little creepy is how the owners personify the restaurant as a lady—a real one according to founder Kenyon Price. "When Isabella opens her doors for the first time to guests, the experience will be nothing short of magical," reads Web site prose. "She is a woman who represents beauty in its art form, but leaves room for modern interpretation. She believes in classic tradition and still she finds herself excited by contemporary influences. She is Italian." And so on and on.
In reality Isabella is pure suburbia, complete with faux Florentine and McByzantine touches plus an oxblood lounge called Isa with contemporary seating coves. Isabella's Stonebriar Commons home includes a Cantina Laredo and a Silver Fox Steak House. There's a huge fountain in a turnabout near Isabella's front doors that sloshes water onto the pavement. Those concrete support posts and the sliced concrete slab outside Isabella's French doors are a germinating Sheraton Hotel.
Isabella is mostly North Texas Italian boilerplate with no surprises. Still, there are a few twists, mostly in plate architecture and color. Mozzarella a la caprese is a high-rise, an elegant segmented stack arranged with basil leaves and balsamic ribbons. It repeats twice like this on the way up: mozzarella slice, yellow tomato slice and four cherry tomato hemispheres. The cherry tomatoes, which resemble oversized salmon roe, are not cored. That means the perfect half-globes have little scabs staring at you. Nevertheless the tomatoes are juicy if a little shy on flavor, and the mozzarella is generous and robust.
Crab cakes aren't particularly classic Italian nor crisply contemporary. Restaurants have been fiddling with them for decades, and they are as ubiquitous as balsamic dribbles. (Won't someone attempt snail cakes already?) But here there is a hint of twisting. Instead of bread fillers, the cakes are blended with polenta and served with lobster aioli. The result is more intriguing than expected. Crab and corn actually have roughly similar levels of sweetness that veer off in slightly different directions (sort of like starched linen versus satin), setting up significant similarities and little contrasts all at the same time. Plus, in purely technical terms, it's a surf and turf; a flora and fauna. Yet every crab cake is just that, most often with an agonizing emphasis on turf and flora (damn bread fillers).
Funny how the tuna tartare evokes the same connections, except here the agony is the surf and fauna. It didn't have to be this way. The design is deft. The tartare is draped in herbed chickpea purée. Toast points are nearby, and there's a spicy tomato sauce from Piedmont for further fussing. But the core of the dish is dismal. The tuna is fishy and chewy and prepared in large thick strips instead of finely chopped fleshy pink. Sweep away the purée and you can see the milky white sinew hugging the chunks.
But then Isabella turns around and fish slaps you (a feisty shrew, it would be fun to think). Sea bass is the crab cakes of menu cartography. It's everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. It's been so long since a sea bass (aren't they extinct yet?) has roiled menu waters with any allurement. But this is rich and moist with distinctive supple flakes. It's topped with an olive pâté that tugs beautifully at the marine brininess.
The trout—headless and tailless but otherwise whole—is dull, however, despite a samoriglio bath (garlic, lemon, olive oil, herbs, etc). There was nothing even delicately interesting about it.
Our waiter, the same one who reads up on wine producers in between table visits, says his maternal grandmother is Sicilian, and gnocchi was their family Christmas dish. It was a big deal to see it on Isabella's menu, he says. It sure looks like a big deal.
It's finished in four cheeses: gorgonzola, fontina, mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Look at that lineup. You'd think there'd be some assertive sensuality in there somewhere. Yes, the tight little potato boobs are wonderful cushions of al dente competence. They're arranged exactingly, frozen in place in the yellow four-cheese goo. The cheese hugs them so tautly—stretched like some sort of gorgonzola Saran wrap—that I fully expected to tease off sheets of skin that would shrivel and cling to the fork tines and dangle like strands of spit or worse. But the sauce is smooth and fluid, thick and hot. Pity it didn't taste better. The composition is inert, crying out for pepper or salt or crushed caper or something, anything to give that rusted roasted tomato in the center some relevance.
Hark though, the risotto with asparagus and grilled shrimp is successful. It's made with carnaroli, an Italian white rice grown in Piedmont and Lombardy. It has short, plump grains that generate a creamy texture while retaining a firm inner germ kernel. The rice is topped with plump smoky grilled shrimp, and the whole mound rests in a bright smear of pepper coulis that adds a mild bite.
Dessert is paraded by on a multilevel tray. We spied the mascarpone cream cheese cake with pistachio graham cracker crust and bit. There was much gladness. Sometimes this Isabella chick really clicks. 1279 Legacy Drive at Stonebriar Commons, Frisco. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Friday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. $$$
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