Back in the kitchen at Isola, Shelter Island’s coastal Italian restaurant, the kitchen is hot. Perhaps what the place is most known for is their brick oven pizza — and even though it’s tucked away on the other side of the kitchen from where I’m standing, I can feel it heating up the space on this unseasonably warm May day. But today, I’m not here for the pizza. I am much more interested in a new pasta dish — the handmade squid ink tagliolini and shrimp.
Chef Sixto Coronel stands in front of several huge mounds of fresh dough. But the one in his hands looks different. Instead of a light tan color, this one is dark — blackened from the ink of a squid. With one hand on the dough and the other on a crank, he guides the slab of pasta through the pasta machine to flatten it out. Coronel repeats the process a dozen more times or so until the blob of pasta flattens into a thin, delicate sheet.
“It’s only made with egg, flour and squid ink,” he says, draping the sheet like fabric onto the wooden surface. “That’s it.” He sprinkles it with flour, speckling the black dough with dust and folds it up. From there, he takes his knife and guides it through the folds, slicing with crazy speed and precision until he is left with stripes of pasta. He rifles his hands through the perfectly quarter inch wide dough and twists the pieces into a little nest.
Coronel, who has 25 years experience in Italian cooking, previously worked under Frank DeCarlo of the former Barba Bianca in Greenport, as well as Mario Bitali and Michael White. After spending last summer working at Isola, he is back as the executive chef adding new dishes to the menu. One of those is the squid ink pasta, which has become one of the most popular items on the menu.
“It’s a sexy dish, right?” owner Brad Kitkowski said. “It’s got shrimp. It’s got seafood. That was one of the first things he did and it was a real winner.”
The finished dish is bright and glossy. Burst cherry tomatoes leak into a white wine broth. Jumbo pink shrimp are layered with parsley, garlic and the noodles. It tastes simple and fresh, like it was cooked by some Italian grandmother on the coast.
“The ink adds a nice fish flavor,” Coronel, originally from Ecuador, told me. I agreed. Imported from Italy, it’s subtle and not overpowering and in combination with the tender shrimp, it gives the same amount of ocean flavor when a gust of wind blows that fresh ocean aroma near the beach.
“The nuances that he does on some of our existing more popular dishes, it’s amazing,” Kitkowski said. “He’s trying new things out and then putting it in front of me and going, ‘What do you think?”
Along with the squid ink pasta, Coronel has added the gnocchi con funghi, a pasta dish with mushrooms and ricotta and tests out a rotating weekly list of specials from grilled octopus to spaghetti with clams to panna cotta.
Isola is open Tuesday to Thursday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m, Friday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
15 Grand Avenue, Shelter Island Heights