Isabella's worth the return visits

Special to The Baltimore Sun

There was another brick-oven pizza joint on the same corner spot in Little Italy where Isabella's is now. That place was good, but Isabella's, open now for 2 1/2 years, is better. I'm sorry I hadn't made it there sooner. The truth is that there's a good range of eating choices in Little Italy, from unpretentious family fare to high cuisine, and Isabella's occupies its own niche.

Isabella's is the kind of order-at-the-counter joint you'd drop into a couple of times a week to order a pizza or a good sandwich. It's a cheerful, sunlit place, with scattered Neapolitan accents. Something as simple as the care someone has taken writing specials on the chalkboards signifies that the staff is ready for business. There are only a dozen seats inside and a few more outside, but I think a lot of people carry the food away. One of my favorite spots for eating outdoors is just a few steps away from Isabella's: the pocket-sized Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. Park, home to Little Italy's bocce courts. (Isabella's will lend you bocce equipment if you want to give it a try.)

Isabella's is jointly owned by the uncle-and-nephew team of Daniel Stewart and Nicholas Harris. They're a good match. Stewart has a business background, specifically in food importing, and he appears to thrive in front-of-house duties, welcoming new customers, keeping the old ones satisfied and generally stirring the pot. Harris is Isabella's chef, who lets his more voluble uncle but even more so his gorgeously treated food do his talking for him.

The choices are essentially brick-oven pizzas, sandwiches and salads. The emphasis is on homemade, quality ingredients. (The mozzarella is made daily, sometimes twice daily.) I almost typed in overstuffed sandwiches above, but the thing I liked best about Isabella's sandwiches is that they're good without being gargantuan. The imported prosciutto, soppresatta and mortadella have convincingly authentic flavor; the Cajun roast beef and honey turkey are baked in the brick oven. I loved the simple Jersey Boy sandwich with homemade sausage, rapini and pepperjack cheese. And superior Sicilian tuna, topped with hot peppers and pepper cheese, makes Isabella's Tuna Diavolo a model sandwich for summer.

I'm always on the lookout for a satisfying meat-topped pizza, and I haven't found one in years I've enjoyed as much as I have the one at Isabella's. It succeeds with a seasoned crust, just firm enough to support high-quality toppings, but not overly dense. We tried a combination of Isabella's Stuarto, which features thinly sliced prosciutto, and the King Richard, a collection of meatballs, pepperoni, sausage and ham. It struck the perfect balance of meat to fresh mozzarella cheese to zesty tomato sauce. There are meatless options, of course, including the classic Margherita, with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.

There are a handful of salads on the menu. We took a Caesar salad home with us and were surprised it didn't have anchovies on it. Isabella's seems like the kind of place that would do that, and the dressing tasted more balsamic than Caesar-y. Sides like marinated eggplant, mushrooms, artichokes and roasted peppers are sold by the pound. The best dessert option is miniature cannoli.

There's not much that I would change about my experience at Isabella's, although I know that a woman dining by herself was put out by the choice and volume of music for a Sunday morning. There was maybe a stray moment when Stewart's eagerness to please a customer made him appear to be a little brusque with his staff. It could have been an off moment, but Isabella's is a small space.

The uncle and nephew have been discussing a relocation or an expansion. Isabella's does fill a niche beautifully, but there's another one waiting to be filled by a proper sit-down pizzeria.

isabella's brick oven pizza & panini Where: 221 S. High St.

Call: 410-962-8888

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, AMEX, Discover

Food: *** 1/2

Service: *** 1/2

Ambience: *** 1/2

Entrees: $6.99-$13.99

Appetizers/sides: $6.99-$12.99

on the menu•Tuna Diavolo: $6.99/$8.99

•Italian cold cut: $6.99/$8.99

•Jersey Boy sub: $8.99

•Meatball "chub": $8.99

•Caesar salad: $6.99

•King Richard pizza: $13.99

•Stuarto pizza: $13.99

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