MANHATTAN VALLEY — A longtime restaurant that closed seven years ago on Columbus Avenue reopened last week on a low-traffic stretch of the block farther north, serving wood-fired pizza its owner believes is worth the trek.
Longtime Upper West Siders will remember Isola restaurant from its time on Columbus Avenue at West 83rd Street, where it served up eats from 1991 and 2006. The Italian spot was closed by owner Sebastiano Cappitta when the landlord jacked up his rent, he said.
Now, Cappitta is looking to make his mark in an area he views as devoid of restaurants, at West 109th Street, by resurrecting Isola, which means island in Italian — a reference to his Sicilian roots and their influence on the menu.
"At night there isn't much traffic," he said. "It's a little pioneering."
But taking risks is familiar to Cappitta, whose initial location was not always what it is today.
"Columbus in the 80s was a no man's land," he recalled.
Cappitta hopes the restaurant will breathe life into the surrounding area, which doesn't get the Columbia University foot traffic of the rest of Morningside Heights.
But Isola's isolation has an upside, Cappitta explained.
"I was very lucky that the lease was not exorbitant," he said, meaning he can keep his prices low.
Cappitta claims his pizzas, which range from $11.50 to $14.50 per pie, taste the same as they did in 1990 when he first opened.
And while the prices may draw bargain seekers from afar, Cappitta hopes the simplicity and quality of his homemade pasta, pizza and grilled meat will attract locals.
"My restaurants are for the neighborhood," he said. "It's not a destination place. It's part of their home."
The restaurant's design is meant to reflect that feeling, with a 25-foot floor-to-ceiling window that opens onto the street in the front of the restaurant.
"It's like bringing the outside inside," Cappitta said. "It's like you're at home on a porch."
No stranger to running an Italian restaurant, Cappitta owns five other eateries, including Bettola, Acqua and Buca on the Upper West Side, and Bettolona and Coccola in Harlem.
Almost everything is baked or finished off in Isola's wood-fired brick oven, with pizza at the center of it all.
"It's more crispy and less doughy. It's not so heavy," Cappitta bragged of his pies.
And as the brand-new oven ages, he noted, the pizzas will get even better with time as it builds up flavor and character.
With a sidewalk cafe, the restaurant seats 65 people in total