A Pleasant Surprise
Despite its location, Poughkeepsie’s Isabella Bistro serves up sophisticated Mediterranean-inspired cuisine
By Bernadette Vail
Great food can be found in the unlikeliest of places — behind an unadorned storefront, in a colorless mall, or down a deserted side street. Some of my most memorable meals have been in quirky restaurants housed in unremarkable buildings, or locations that might raise eyebrows. What I have learned is not to judge a book by its cover, or more specifically, not to judge a restaurant by its facade. What’s happening in the dining room and kitchen is what matters.
Isabella Bistro, located in a small strip mall in Poughkeepsie, might easily be passed by. My condolences to those who keep driving. Inside, chef-owner Vincent Cappelletti is turning out delicious Mediterranean food with an Italian influence. (Cappelletti terms his creations “world cuisine” because many are not strictly Mediterranean.)
We were greeted with the kind of warmth normally reserved for long lost friends, a genial welcome that more than made up for any coldness of the minimalist yet comfortable dining room. White tablecloths adorn the tables, and brightly colored walls lighten the intimate space. The service here is wonderful — attentive but not overbearing.
Throughout the night, the breadbasket was replenished and soft drinks were refilled at no charge. Portions were plentiful; in fact, it may be the first time I’ve seen my perpetually hungry teenage son and his friend request a doggy bag.
The menu is always changing, depending on the season. Our appetizers arrived and were consumed with relish. The pan-fried polenta topped with mushrooms ($8) was wonderful; each crisp bite gave way to a creamy interior, which was enhanced by a deep, red-wine reduction. A rustic carrot ginger soup ($6) was thick and flavorful, with a pleasingly sharp bite. The shrimp wrapped in pancetta ($8) were placed atop sliced oranges and finished with an aromatic anisette sauce scented with orange. Meaty mussels steamed in a fennel, garlic, and pesto broth ($8) were out of this world. Ten minutes after our other appetizers had been cleared, we were still dipping homemade focaccia into the addictive, luxuriant sauce. Our waitress gave a knowing smile when we finally relinquished the empty bowl.
After such an auspicious beginning, we couldn’t wait to dig into our entrÃ©es. Linguini Shellfish ($19) was impressive. Mounds of shrimp, mussels, clams, and scallops teetered precariously atop linguini bathed in a delicate saffron-infused tomato broth, which played an appropriate supporting role to the fresh and distinctly flavored fish. Exotic Ravioli ($16) were full of flavor, if not necessarily exotic. The homemade ravioli was stuffed with two fillings — lobster and lump crab, and porcini mushrooms. Beautiful red and black stripes, created from red peppers and squid ink, adorned the outside of the pasta, which came slathered in a deeply satisfying sage and shallot cream sauce. The Vegetarian Plate ($14) consisted of a mix of grilled and raw vegetables — eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, red cabbage — all resting on an abundant bed of couscous, chopped onions, and black olives. It was finished off with a dollop of pesto. The dish was a bit bland for a few of us at the table but our vegetarian diner was delighted. Chicken Parmesan ($15) was a hit. What can be an uninspired staple was transformed by Chef Cappelletti. The chicken was meltingly tender, its thin, crisp exterior blanketed by a thick slab of fresh mozzarella. The sauce was refreshingly refined, with little hint of anything besides fresh, ripe tomatoes. Simply delicious.
We ended our meal bickering over which was the best dessert. The densely rich cheesecake with mango sauce ($6) and the cannoli stuffed with an airy vanilla bean filling and bits of chocolate ($4) tied for first. Following close behind was the crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e ($6), with its creamy custard and brittle top, and the chocolate cake ($6), iced with a silky layer of chocolate ganache. Isabella also has a nice, very reasonably priced wine list and a selection of specialty and after-dinner drinks.
Cappelletti has been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years, but Isabella Bistro (named after his young daughter) is his maiden voyage as an owner. His knowledge and experience shine in this first endeavor, not only through his distinguished food, but also in the warm, hospitable atmosphere he has created. As we drove home that evening, we lamented on the long distance that would prevent us from visiting more frequently. I’m envious of those who live close enough to become regulars.
Isabella Bistro is located at 308 Titusville Road in Poughkeepsie. Lunch is served Tues.-Fri. noon-3 p.m., dinner Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. and Sun. 4-9 p.m. Appetizers are $8, salads are $5, entrÃ©es range from $13-$23, and desserts are $6 (except for the cannoli, which is $4). 845-485-9999.