As my great-grandmother used to say (in her thick Italian accent), "Mangiare per vivere e non vivere per mangiare." Translation: eat to live, don't live to eat. Make every bite count.
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Customers are making the most of their every forkful at Shelter Island's latest culinary sensation. Walk through the Historic Heights District and you're bound to see a new neighbor in town, Isola. Taking up residence where Sweet Tomato's once stood, at 15 Grand Avenue, this freshly designed Italian restaurant provides locals and visitors with seasonally, locally-sourced ingredients inspired by the island flavors of Italia (after all, Isola means "island" in Italian).
Upon entering this 170-seat restaurant, I was greeted immediately with a tremendously warm smile by the owner, Brad Kitkowski.
"I have a sincere love for Shelter Island, so the chance to become a part of the island for the long term really appealed to me," Kitowski expressed. "Shelter Island is a special place, the Heights have an amazing history, and I am passionate about great food and wine. It's a complete dream come true."
Once I was seated, rosemary bread with green olives in olive oil arrived. An Isola Spritz -- elderflower, grapefruit, and Prosecco – was the ideal drink for my summer evening, or any evening in fact.
Though Isola debuted over July Fourth weekend, it's still being unraveled dish by dish. Executive chef Seth Nathan brings along with him 17 years of cooking experience, which was first introduced with a fritto misto -- fried calamari, shrimp, saffron aioli, scallop, and preserved lemon. The scallop stood out with its plump, ever so subtle taste. More, please.
Next, my server Jordan brought out Kobe meatballs -- a signature beef blend with tomato, ricotta salate, and focaccia. Basil topped the meatballs in all of their savory flavor. The entire dish is reminiscent of Naples. With a youthful, informative personality that enhanced the atmosphere, Jordan detailed the reasons why Kobe beef is a superior meat chosen by the restaurant.
Sitting down to discuss life and food, Kitowski was enthusiastic. "I truly love the Bolognese pappardelle with a nice cold glass of rosé after dinner service has ended. Just the perfect cap to my night."
My pasta dishes spanned the Italian countryside, from sea to farm. The linguine vongole dish featured garlic, white wine, and preserved lemons topped with tasty Peconic clams. Next came bucatini with amatriciana sauce, guanciale, San Marzano tomatoes, and pecorino.
Guanciale is a savory Italian cured meat made of pork jowls and paired with the thickness of the bucatini became my favorite meal of the night. This plate is enough motivation to get anyone through that door!
The restaurant also has personal-sized pizzas, for eating solo or even sharing, if you're into that sort of thing. A standout is a Tonno pizza -- tuna, wild arugula, red onion, preserved lemon, and San Marzano tomatoes. Mangia!
An interesting and unique choice is the touch of preserved lemon that accompanies most dishes. While other restaurants may blend into the background in a supersaturated market of Italian cuisine (then again, can you ever have too much Italian food?), Isola is bound to stand out due to its zesty twist on classic dishes. Having spent some time living in northern Spain and southern France, it's evident that Chef Nathan is a master of his kitchen.
The culinary creativity of Nathan and Kitowski is making its mark on Shelter Island. "The community has been great. I think there was a great deal of interest to see what type of restaurant would open in this historic building in a very central part of the island, so we have had so many guests coming to check out the menu, renovations, and decor," said Kitowski.
"We love hearing their stories of their past experiences and relationships with the space. We want everyone, tourists and locals, to feel welcome and relaxed whenever they are with us."
To end a night of delicacies, I enjoyed the homemade panna cotta made with lavender, orange, and Amarena cherry, and homemade tiramisu featuring marscarpone, espresso, and cacao. As a mild tiramisu snob, I was pleased – finishing every bite and almost ordereding a second. However, the table next to me indulged in a Nutella pizza -- let me repeat, Nutella pizza -- that is sure to be on my order next time.
Whether you choose to dine in the bar, the dining room, or al fresco on the covered porches, Isola is open seven days a week with new specials each day. For your Sunday night dinner, partake in its popular $19 Chicken Parm special with bucatini and salad.
"We are loving the summer, but also looking forward to the fall including football Sundays in the bar with Chef Nathan's wings and some local beers on tap. The island is spectacular in the fall," Kitowski concluded.
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