If you’ve ventured up to the New South Wales mid-north coast region, you’ll know it boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia and some amazing camping and accommodation options.
You’ll also know that finding a restaurant in which to enjoy a nice meal is a tad tricky, as most of the dining destinations skew very casual and lack the sophistication of something you might find in Sydney.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Executive Chef, Dani Cerullo and his wife Leah Curtis, plus her sister Sophie and their childhood friend Ben Clark. Cerullo was born in Rome and worked in five-star restaurants in Italy and across Europe before moving to Australia in 2015. The Curtis sisters grew up in Forster and Clark boasts an impressive resume, which includes the Michelin-starred Bistro Bruno Loubet at the Zetter Hotel and the Mondrian Hotel in Southbank — both in London. He also owned award-winning Nola London, before returning to Australia in 2019.
Isola is perched on the waterfront, in a converted boatshed on Wallis Lake, and offers seating both indoors and out, with blankets provided for those opting to dine al fresco.
Upon our arrival one dreamy Saturday evening, we were greeted with popcorn and two glasses of prosecco (which I sadly had to decline due to being five months pregnant, but the Bellini mocktail I was served definitely hit the mark) to enjoy on the fairy light-strewn deck. Two long tables in front of us had been set up for an incoming party, the fairy floss sunset providing the perfect backdrop for the incoming guests.
After our pre-dinner drinks, we moved inside to the bright, yet warm, space to enjoy our meal. Stunning photos of the Amalfi coast adorn the walls, the decor is restrained and it evokes just the right balance of rustic and considered. And as for the service — it was absolutely impeccable.
Everything at Isola is designed to be shared, so we started with the burrata — a cloud of fluffy, oozy goodness served on a bed of braised greens with pine nuts and dried currants — and the deep-fried zucchini flowers, stuffed with mozzarella and encased in the most delightfully light batter.
This was followed up by the whiting fritti (again, so light and delicate despite being fried) and the butterflied king prawns, perfectly charred and dressed in garlic oil that I could have drunk from a glass.
The main event was the seared bistecca, a decadent cut of wagyu served with salsa verde, cherry tomatoes and truffle aioli, which, according to my partner, paired nicely with his rich Malbec.
Now, don’t judge us, but we ordered two desserts (I’m eating for two, remember) — the tangy and refreshing lemon sorbetto served with prosecco for my partner, and the torta Caprese for me, which was a chocolate and orange almond cake with crema al limoncello sauce. We had to stop ourselves from licking the plates clean, let me tell you.
As it turns out, Isola makes their own Limoncello in-house, in a variety of flavours, so my partner ordered a blood orange one to finish off his meal and I am told it was heaven in a glass. In a very generous gesture, we were given a little bottle of their lemon flavoured version to take home and you’d better believe I’ll be enjoying that as soon as my little human is with us (I may have told the server I’d take it into the delivery room with me.)
Cerullo’s cooking philosophy is to respect each individual ingredient by selecting top-quality produce and championing that produce with traditional cooking methods that let it shine. And shine, his dishes certainly do.
Between the ambience, food, service and location, our visit to Isola Riva felt like a vacation within our vacation — making it exactly what we, and the region — so sorely needed.
Isola Riva is open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday and for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. For more information and to make a booking, visit their official website: ISOLA (isolariva.com.au).