Isola — it’s the Italian word for “island,” and an entirely appropriate name for a new restaurant on Shelter Island specializing in new Italian cuisine. That, according to Seth Nathan, Isola’s executive chef, translates to sourcing the freshest ingredients to be found on the East End and infusing them with the flavors of the Mediterranean.
“We’re surrounded by water, so the menu is heavy on seafood, locally sourced ingredients and the comfortable, approachable — yet beautiful — environment,” he said. “The concept gives us creative license to expand beyond various regions of Italy and into other parts of the Mediterranean.”
When it comes to Italy, Nathan admits to being a big fan of Calabria in Sicily. The natural salinity of the food found there is something he appreciates, dishes like cleanly cooked fish served alongside great produce.
“I also like a little heat and Calabria peppers,” he said. “I realize that’s not everyone’s palate, so I’m not forcing it, but I offer it.”
Isola’s pizza is one place where the peppers can be found, but only for those who have a hankering for the hot.
Isola is, indeed, the new Island hot-spot. The restaurant opened its doors on July 2 in the space previously occupied by Sweet Tomatoes in Shelter Island Heights. Not only is the restaurant new to the Island, but so is Nathan. He comes to Isola from Solvang, California in Santa Barbara wine country where he ran restaurants and hotels and moonlighted as chef du cuisine at a friend’s restaurant.
When a mutual friend of Isola’s owner advised Nathan to talk to them about a new restaurant they were opening in the Hamptons, he decided to find out what it was all about.
“I knew nothing of Shelter Island,” Nathan said. “I thought it was a cool opportunity — even if just for the summer.”
Within a few minutes, he found himself on the phone with owner Brad Kitkowski. Within six days, he was on a plane to New York with his boxes being sent behind him. Now that he’s here and summer is nearing its end, Nathan has no intentions of leaving — the plethora of farms and vineyards have entirely captivated him.
“Coming from California wine country I knew the North Fork had a lot of wine — and I’m a huge rosé fan,” he admitted. “I’m impressed with what the whole area has to offer.”
“I definitely thought I was moving to New York. I realize it’s a totally different than my perception — in no way is that negative, only in a positive way,” added Nathan who is excited about the new variety of fish available here — porgies, black bass, Atlantic cod and blowfish, which he just recently tried for the first time.
“They remind me of monk fish tails — that’s my favorite,” he said.
Nathan’s enthusiasm extends to the new dishes he has created for Isola diners.
For fish lovers, the fritto misto offers a combination of fried striped bass, calamari and shrimp served with a saffron aioli and preserved lemon, which the whole branzino is done simply with citrus and Sylvester Manor vegetables.
On Isola’s pasta menu, Amatriciana with guanciale (smoky cheek jowls), Bolognese and classic pomodoroa are among the red-sauce offerings. Also available is radiatore pasta with fennel sausage, sage fresh ricotta and drops of truffle oil.
“The recipes are based in Italian tradition, not Italian American. We coat — we don’t smother,” Nathan said. “The Bolognese touches on the classic but with newer twists — which is the blend of beef we use — Kobe brisket and dry aged rib-eye prime, so you’re taking a little of the funk that comes with the dry age flavor and earthiness and upping it with the Kobe brisket, which is already a fantastically marbled piece of meat. Then I’m adding fresh oregano which gives it spice, rather than basil with it’s sweetness.”
Soon, Nathan said, Isola will start an extension of the menu to include more seafood, some crudos, possibly a fluke and raw bar with half West Coast and half East Coast offerings. Of course, with August now firmly in our midst, those who live on the East End year round always have one major question when a new restaurant comes to town.
Will they stay open after summer ends?
“We will remain open for residents,” Nathan vowed. “They’ll be our bread and butter and we’ll provide locals with a place to go in winter. We’ve been doing our research and we want to cater to locals first and foremost. I want that to be known.”
“I’ll be here full time,” he said. “I look forward to shining in this area and providing our locals with an excellent experience.”
Isola is open every day, serving lunch Wednesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and till midnight Thursday through Saturday. A new happy hour is now offered Sunday to Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. with $6 drinks, including the bar’s signature Isola Spritz (elderflower, grapefruit and prosecco).
Isola is located at 15 Grand Avenue, Shelter Island Heights. Call (63) 749-9036 for reservations or information or visit isolany.com.