Mon, Apr 23, 2012
Isabella Dishes on DC
One of DC's hottest chefs talks new venues, favorite dining spots around town and where you'll find him on nights off.
In those still moments of tumbling light between afternoons and evenings, when tables are reset for the culinary show known as dinner, Mike Isabella wonders how cooks ever became rock stars.
“You work nights, weekends and holidays. You’re dirty. You smell. You burn yourself. You’re behind closed doors,” he jokes.
So how did this happen?
While Isabella enjoys being one of the latest exemplars of this rarified status, and admits he loved appearing twice on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” the 37-year-old New Jersey-born classically trained chef explains, “All I ever wanted to do was cook good food.”
After an impressive apprenticeship that led him up and down the East Coast from New York to Philadelphia to Washington by way of Atlanta, a period when he learned both the art and the business of cooking from the likes of Philadelphians Jose Garces (Alma de Cuba) and Stephen Starr, and, most recently, a three-and-a-half-year stint as executive chef at José Andrés’ D.C. hot spot Zaytinya, last June Isabella took the plunge and opened his own restaurant, the 130-seat Graffiato.
“On the night we opened,” he says, with quiet pride, “there was a line around the block, and it really hasn’t changed much since.”
Graffiato customers, a diverse group that includes travelers, Penn Quarter neighbors and locals from Maryland, Virginia and D.C., are obviously fond of the small-plate menu, similar to that of Andrés’ hit restaurants. But Isabella adds the dishes he learned at the apron, if not the knee, of his Italian grandmother. “I was rolling meatballs at age 6 or 7,” he says, “rolling out gnocchi or peeling garlic—and loving it. From then on, food intrigued me. It smelled great, it was unique, and I always wanted to try something different.”
When the farm-to-table mantra enters the conversation these days, gourmets’ eyes glaze. It’s great, but promoted to death. Isabella has a different approach. “When I say local, I mean more than just farm-to-table. I mean working with the local wineries and companies that are brewing beer, spirits and sodas—everything, even filtered water systems. I’ve always wanted to do it as ‘home’ as I could get it,” he says.
In conversation, Isabella often calls his restaurant “my home” and says he considers Graffiato—an earlier form of the word “graffiti”—a neighborhood restaurant. “No matter what time the kitchen closes for the night, the pizza oven stays fired up for another two hours. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, we don’t close until 1 or 2 a.m.”
He’s also fiercely proud of his two open kitchens. “When we designed Graffiato, I wanted both kitchens, the one upstairs as well as the one downstairs, to be open, so the customer can sit in my world, can see what I, what we, do,” Isabella says. “They’ve seen me on TV, and I know they want to know what goes on. So, why hide it from them?”
While the patrons clearly approve of Graffiato’s food and minimally decorated space, what has impressed industry insiders is the swiftness of Isabella’s success, as evidenced by the spring opening of another D.C. restaurant, this one on M Street in Georgetown. The new restaurant, to be called Bandolero, will feature modern Mexican cuisine, but with small plates a la Graffiato.
How has the young chef-owner managed to make it, and so swiftly, in a business with such a notoriously high failure rate?
He cites the importance of opening his first restaurant in the District’s Penn Quarter, a high-traffic area with mixed-use retail and residential bordered by the Newseum and the Verizon Center. It’s a tourist hotbed and arguably the city’s best commercial location.
“All my mentors stressed location, location, location,” says Isabella. It also helps that he and his wife live in the neighborhood. “I love Penn Quarter. I found this [unoccupied two-story] building by just walking around. It had been a print shop at one time. I walk to work, so I don’t need a car, but I did just buy a scooter to get back and forth between the two restaurants. I know, me being Italian it should be a Vespa, but it’s a Honda Ruckus.”
Isabella also is also fiercely loyal and hires scores of people he’s worked with in the past. “Sous chefs, managers, servers, cooks—they’ve all worked for me before. [Hiring them] was one of the best things I did, because when you open a restaurant of this size and caliber, you’re only as good as your team.”
An unavoidable question for a chef such as Isabella has to do with the impact of the hugely popular food shows on television. How important they are to a chef’s success is a question that causes some cooks to bristle. Not Isabella.
“Being on national television helps a lot. But for me, the biggest thing, once I’d made a name for myself and knew I was opening my own restaurant, was really getting to know all the other chefs, the bartenders, the managers—the restaurant people. Because I knew if I put out a great product with great service and something a little bit different, then I could get all those people in my door. And that if I did a great job, the industry people would tell everyone else, and that would help me a lot.”
One of the main reasons why Isabella, unlike some other owner-chefs, is willing, even eager, to open in Georgetown is that he is so bullish on D.C. “When I moved here for a job, I fell in love with the city. With all the new chefs and the new concepts, just to be a part of it has been great and exciting. I think D.C. is the fastest-growing culinary scene in America and has the greatest potential.”
When Graffiato opened, Isabella worked the line every night for months, but has now “slacked off” to about five nights a week.
“I still shake hands with everyone walking in, because, as I say, this is my house,” he says. “Look, you put up great food, served by a great team, and you make people feel like they’re at your house—how could people not have a great time?”
The chef’s go-to spots around town:
Favorite restaurants and bars in D.C.:
“We like the Source [Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant adjacent to the Newseum].
I enjoy hanging out at the bar at ChurchKey on 14th Street. I love the Spanish tapas at Estadio. There’s a great ramen noodle shop up on H Street, Northeast, called Toki Underground. D.C. has a lot of great places.”
And for steak:
“Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. They also have great cocktails. They really did it right over there. That’ll be my hangout when I’m
Favorite diversions in town:
“I like going to Nationals’ games. But for us it’s mostly dining, so a vacation is usually a busman’s holiday because I’m still learning my industry. Actually, I’ll be learning it forever. For our honeymoon, my wife wanted to go to a place that was warm, and where we wouldn’t always be going out to eat, so we went to Hawaii.”