Top Chef, Top Spot: Mike Isabella brings Graffiato to Chinatown!

Anyone who says that Mike Isabella, Top Chef Las Vegas Contestant and Runner-Up on Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars, is anything less than a cool freaking dude, has never actually met him.

Last night, despite it being the opening night of his new restaurant Graffiato, Isabella left the kitchen to come answer a few of this aspiring blogger’s questions.  In the interest of time (I knew he needed to get back to the kitchen ASAP) and because I knew Washingtonian, Washington Post, and every other Washington news outlet had already covered just about everything there is to know about this Jersey native turned Zaytinya chef turned household name and his new Chinatown restaurant, I asked him the most random questions I could think of and because he’s an awesome guy – he totally obliged.

KC: Favorite dish you’ve ever made.

MI: Pork Shoulder Pepperoni Sauce on the [Top Chef All Stars] Season Finale.

KC: Favorite DC Late Night Food Spot.

MI: New Big Wong Chinese Restaurant in Chinatown. They’re open until 5 a.m. and it’s awesome food.

KC: Favorite ingredient to experiment with.

MI: I’m not much of an experimenter, but I love using lemon.  It’s in a lot of my sauces and vinaigrettes.

KC: Real Housewives of New Jersey or Jersey Shore?

MI: (with a big smile on his face) Jersey Shore.

Thanks to restaurateur Hilda Staples (who also owns Volt), I was BEYOND honored to try Graffiato on opening night and I have to say that it was absolutely fantastic.  The restaurant, located on the corner of 6th and G St, is a throwback to Isabella’s Italian roots – but don’t call it an Italian restaurant, this Italian-inspired joint has Isabella’s affinity for Mediterranean and Latin cuisine sprinkled all throughout its menu.

The place was packed, full of eager Washingtonians hoping to catch a glimpse of their hometown celebrity, and it will continue to be packed for a while – reservations on Open Table are completely booked for the next week (though the restaurant has walk-in tables every night). That said, at Graffiato, a full house doesn’t mean diners have to miss any of the action.  The U-shaped bar on the first floor has 15 bar stools right in front of the wood ovens and talented chefs cooking up delicious artisanal pizzas.

Upstairs in the main dining room is where Washingtonians can find the famous chef in action. The completely open kitchen is where Isabella says he’ll be 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for the foreseeable future (quick side note – props to Isabella for not taking celebrity chef status and just putting his name on a restaurant, he’s clearly working his butt off). Throughout our meal (which was amazing – more on that in a second), I kept watching Isabella in action and it was SO cool to see him in his natural element after only ever seeing him in the time-crunched stress fest that is a controlled reality TV competition.

What was even cooler was Isabella’s genuine willingness to come out and greet his fans during dinner.  Many just walked up to the kitchen and asked him for a picture. Without hesitation, he took his apron off and came out for a photo-op with his fans.  And nearly everyone one of them had two things to say: You were awesome on Top Chef, and the food here is fantastic.

It’s true – the food is awesome.  The menu is series of small plates and pizzas designed for sharing.  My husband Craig and I ordered a bottle of wine from the very reasonably priced list (our delightful Sangiovese was just $26) and started with the bread, which came with an olive oil jam that was a delicious change of pace.  We also ordered the blistered sweet peppers that were a unique flavor made with smoked paprika and capers. So good!

We then moved on to Isabella’s Penne Pasta dish, which had lamb and showed off his Mediterranean culinary style. We also had the delicious Classic Pizza, on which we threw some of our leftover sweet peppers. Delish!

Perhaps best of all was our dessert – the chocolate tart with sea salt gelato and…..olive oil! No joke – odd combination but one of the tastiest and freshest desserts I’ve had in a while.  Worth every calorie.

In fact, everything at Graffiato is worth every calorie.  It’s a great place to go on a Friday date night, with the family, or before a show or game at the Verizon Center.  I’m looking forward to what Isabella comes up with next, but in the meantime, you can be sure to see me there again soon!

Indeed a top chef! xo – KC

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