Livin’ up to the hype: Mike Isabella’s Graffiato
Like a summer movie blockbuster, rarely does a restaurant so highly anticipated , as Graffiato (707 6th St., NW) live up to the hype. Mike Isabella‘s first baby whose name means graffiti or scratched– is the latest addition the GalleryPlace\Chinatown ‘hood, open just 10 days when I visited, and has been one of the most talked about restaurant openings in months (possibly years) in Washington, DC. Anyone who has seen Top Chef, knows why.
Due to Isabella’s awe-inspiring appearances on season 6 of Top Chef and Top Chef Allstars, he has become our latest local celebrity. Many Washingtonians, including myself, were already familiar with Isabella’s work as head chef at Jose Andres’ Zaytinya; however, he brought it to a whole new level on the show. The anticipation of Chef Isabella opening his own place began with the announcement that he was leaving Zaytinya last year; being the Runner-Up on Top Chef Allstars spurred the excitement even more. Now that it’s open (as of June 23rd), Isabella said, “We’ve been packed every single night and have been staying open as late as 1 a.m. serving pizza.”
After just one dinner, I can confidently say that Graffiato has not only lived up to all the hype, but has exceeded my expectations. (Btw, Isabella said he was already thinking about a second location!).
At Graffiato, Chef Isabella returns to his roots offering a menu serving seasonal, artisanal pizzas and small plates inspired by the food that he grew up eating in New Jersey prepared by his Italian-American grandmother. Isabella has not been shy about how meaningful his time with his grandmother was and how many of the dishes at Graffiato will be tribute to her. With the extraordinary flavors and remarkable quality of the dishes, it certainly shows that he is cooking with love.
Isabella said that now that he’s thinking about raising a family, Graffiato is the kind of place that he’d like to bring his kids to one day. Speaking of kids, he’s pretty possessive over his tools. Writer Nevin Martell captured the essence of Isabella’s feisty and tenacious personality within one shot (the photo explains it all).
While chatting with Chef Isabella, he tole me that he wanted Graffiato to be a neighborhood gathering place, which he purposely designed to be unpretentious. He referenced one of his favorite industry flicks that most American chefs know well, Dinner Rush. Like in the movie, Isabella said that he wanted to be able to walk around and greet guests, giving the place a more intimate, neighborly kind-of-feel. Even with two levels and 130-seats, Chef Isabella makes it a point to interact with guests while keeping a watchful eye on the kitchen. When he’s not out schmoozing with the guests, he’s in the kitchen crafting his dishes from locally sourced seasonal produce and locally cured hams, hand-rolled pastas and marinated vegetable accoutrements.
The bi-level layout has simplistic industrial-mod decor (complete with herbs planted in tin cans on each table) and features a ham bar, where Isabella’s locally-cured meat will be served up, on the second floor, while offering some of the best seats in the house. On the lower level, the large wood oven is a focal point, tucked behind a U-shaped counter with 15 bar stools. Both stations are counter height and open, encouraging dialogue between the guests and staff. Also on the ground level, the sleek bar lined with tall metallic bar stools is outfitted with taps for beer and Prosecco (a DC area first). The wooden tables used throughout the restaurant were handmade made by Isabella himself, and his father-in-law. Isabella credits the slim budget, but I say that it’s an even greater testament to the blood, sweat, and tears that he has put into the place. Isabella says that Graffiato is still evolving and even pointed out that the large wooden hutch on the top level was just installed that day.
According to Chef Isabella, the menu at Graffiato has changed already since the opening, and it will continue to evolve. Because he prides himself on using local seasonal ingredients, we’re bound to see many changes. One of the wood-oven roasted dishes offered on the menu is the famous Top Chef All Stars award-winning chicken thighs with pepperoni sauce. While the portions were somewhat small, for a dish intended to be shared, the flavors were divine. The chicken was juicy and had a slightly crispy skin. Oh … and the sauce?! After watching Gail Simmons go gaga over it and hearing the comments that Tom Colicchio made on TV, I agree that the sauce was “all that” and worth fighting over. Thank goodness that we decided to order the bread basket, because we had something to sop up the extra sauce. In fact, I had to draw a line through the sauce that was left on the plate to make it fair, who got what (yes, I gave Daphne more). The assortment of bread, included a fresh Focaccia, a raisin bread, a sweet corn and polenta bread. It was served with two dipping sauces; one made with ricotta cheese, olive oil and orange zest, the other was an olive oil ‘jam’. Very interesting flavors. The dipping sauces, actually made it fun to eat the bread. Even though it’s not complimentary, I think it was well worth it.
We also ordered the sweet corn agnolotti (tiny ravioli made with small pieces of flattened pasta dough) with chanterelles and pine nuts. The filling, a sweet mixture of cheese and corn puree, was almost decadent and oh so smooth. Once again, we dredged our bread in the leftover sauce. I told Kevin that I could eat five more plates, and I probably could have.
For our next course we put our fate in Chef Isabella’s capable hands and let him decide our pizza. Probably based on a brief conversation, before I was seated upstairs, he sent out The Countryman. Isabella said that it was a very popular dish and that I should try it. The Countryman is like no other pizza that I have ever had before. The smokey earthy flavor of the truffles were balanced superbly with the creamy Fontina cheese and duck egg. The pizza is brought over to the table, and the runner (which just so happened to be Isabella’s younger brother) asks if you would like your egg broken and distributed over the pizza. Apparently lil’ Isabella is visiting DC from Jerzee, for a week or so, but I digress. The pizza is very rich, so I was only able to eat one or two slices. There are six slices, so if you’re sharing with one or two people it’s the perfect portion size.
In addition to having Chef Isabella stop by our table and sit down with us to chat, having baby ‘bella serve our delicious pizza, which was awesome, the service was astounding. I felt like I was at a fine dining restaurant. We were treated like royalty (I can hear my husband now, saying, “cuz yer Purdy!). Our server, Kevin, was so friendly, knowledgeable and amazing, I told him that I wouldn’t come back to Graffiato, unless I had him as my server. Apparently, he worked with Isabella at Zaytinya, and he moved with him. The Service Director, Jason Awad, was also very gracious. I was greeted by him when I was waiting by the bar for my friend, Daphne to arrive. He said, “We’re so glad that you’re here.” I really was made to feel at home. I loved it. For only being open 10 days, they had their Sh!t together.
For our last course, I ordered the “off-the-menu” secret dessert. Yes, it’s true. You won’t find the zeppoles on the menu; however, Chef Isabella will prepare 15 to 20 orders of the sweet fluffy dough balls each evening, and guests who know to ask will be deliciously rewarded with warm treats dusted with strawberry powered sugar. He is still working on the balsamic chocolate dipping sauce, which he plans to serve, as soon as he “isn’t buried”.
Graffiato also offers a large local selection of wine, beer and spirits. Beers from DC Brau Brewing, Flying Dog Brewing and Port City Brewing represent The District, Maryland and Virginia. Graffiato Red 1.0 is a Nebbiolo bottled by Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, Va., exclusively for Graffiato. While the Montelvini Prosecco is made in Italy, it is also the only sparkling wine you can find on tap in Washington, D.C. The entire wine list, with more than 50 selections, is available by the glass and the bottle.
Congratulations, Mikey! You and Graffiiato deserve every ounce of praise that visitors, locals and critics give it.
My Sum Up: I didn’t think it was possible that it could live up to all of the hype, but it did, and then some. I was blown away but the quality of the food (and omg, the flavors!). It’s well worth the visit (or three). You should go. The portions aren’t huge, but for the quality, it’s a great value.