A Tale of Two Cities

Graffiato’s rustic Italian menu incorporates innovative throwbacks to Chef Mike Isabella’s New Jersey roots and captivates diners in D.C. and RVA.

At 6:00 on a chilly Thursday evening, the downstairs shotgun bar at Graffiato in Washington, D.C., is packed with after-work 20-somethings bending elbows with craft beers and spicy cocktails and diners noshing from pizza stands, all warmed by a glowing double-sided cherrywood-fired pizza oven. If you’re dining in, more than likely the host will escort you upstairs, as she did my guests and me on this evening. As we stepped into the main dining room with an open kitchen and “ham bar” with cleavers hanging overhead, I was momentarily taken aback. In front of me lay a sea of red. What? I must have missed the memo.

Then I sat down and looked through the plate-glass window. Staring back at me across the street was a giant Washington Capitals banner on the face of the Verizon Center. Of course. On game nights, the servers, who usually wear black Graffiato tees, sport red ones like the Caps fans who fill the tables. That’s the kind of place it is.

Though it lies in D.C.’s China Town, celebrity chef and restaurant impresario Mike Isabella’s Graffiato dishes up some of the city’s best rustic Italian food. Opened in 2011, Graffiato was Isabella’s first restaurant—he now has seven, and counting, spread throughout D.C., Arlington and Richmond—and was the inspiration for the year-old-plus Graffiato in Richmond.

One thing I instantly liked about Graffiato is that it aims to please, even paying respect to nonalcoholic drinks by offering an array of house-made sodas. I ordered the chef’s tasting menu and proceeded to knock out a deep thirst with a pomegranate lemon-lime soda, which arrived complete with pomegranate seeds and a lime slice on board, followed by a mescal Manhattan, while nibbling on crispy flatbread, slightly charred in the wood-burning oven and served with a subtle marinara. The evening was off to a fine start.

Graffiato D.C. has a rough-and-ready industrial feel with concrete floors and dark walls with graffiti paintings. That’s the way Isabella, a brash Jersey boy raised in the Bronx, who after training under four James Beard Award-winning chefs made it big on Bravo’s Top Chef, wants it. It echoes the austere Italian family restaurants of his youth. Isabella learned to cook at the knee of his grandmother Antoinette in her Jersey kitchen, where he learned the basics of making pasta and gnocchi, among other things. The fast-talking tattooed chef later developed a knack for Greek and Mexican cuisines and used this diverse palette and his earthy humor to good effect in 2010’s Top Chef: All-Stars, where he competed against 18 other chefs who, like him, had already appeared on the show. One of only two chefs who survived to compete in all 16 episodes, Isabella exhibited steely nerves in fast-paced cook-offs, including cooking and catering a high-end lunch party for a yacht club’s 80th anniversary celebration on a deserted Bahamian island.

“You had zero electricity,” Isabella tells me later, in a conversation over the phone from one of his many new start-ups. “You had a knife, a cutting board, and an open fire. So you had to get creative.” But first he had to harvest conch fresh from the ocean. Isabella won this contest.  

Soon his small plates filled our table. There were charred Brussels sprouts cooked just right—not too soft, not too crisp—with pancetta, maple yogurt and egg; beet salad with a soft boiled egg, arugula and pistachio yogurt; tender skate with braised lentils; and two pastas: tagliatelle with short-rib ragout and squid-ink fettucine with clams, calamari and Italian sausage. The carefully orchestrated combinations of flavors created a delicious comfort food. Finally, when a crispy, piping hot tomato, anchovy and olive pizza from the wood-burning stove arrived, I had reached the tipping point. I wasn’t sure I had room for the zeppole with chocolate and caramel cream, but these Italian-style doughnut holes were fried with such a light touch that I thought I heard angels singing—or maybe it was the Pallini Limoncello (lemon liqueur) served with them.  

A week later I visited Graffiato Richmond, on the ground floor of the Popkin Building, a former furniture showroom built in 1906, on a downtown corner of Broad Street in what is rapidly becoming the most happening culinary and arts strip in town. Savoring a spicy Tony Starr 2.0—Thai chili-infused mescal, tequila, Cointreau, blood orange, lime and agave—at a mezzanine table, I peered across the restaurant, across North Jefferson Street to the dining room of art-gallery-inspired Quirk Hotel and into its bustling kitchen, a transcendent view. This is Richmond’s hip future, flavored by its past. Across Broad are the Virginia Repertory Theater, Comfort (a restaurant owned by Isabella’s friend Jason Alley), and Candela, one of the South’s top avant-garde photo galleries. Up Broad is the venerable 1708 Gallery, soon to be joined by the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art, the pre-anointed gem of VCU’s arts crown.

It was Alley and Graffiato Richmond-partner Travis Croxton—owner of Rappahannock Oyster Co. and purveyor of oysters for Graffiato D.C.—who lured Isabella to Richmond. Once here, the chef fell in love with the historic vibe, Southern flare, proximity to food sources and culinary scene. As an expansive thinker, he saw it as a town that might be suited for not just Graffiato but a number of his restaurant concepts. He decided to test the waters.

 Isabella is a visionary but not a control freak. “The first menu meeting we had, we just sat down and bounced ideas back and forth,” says Matthew Robinett, who is chef de cuisine in the Richmond kitchen. “He likes the menu at Graffiato to be based in rustic Italian cuisine and then have a twist on it.

“He wants to draw a line to connect the restaurants but at the same time he allows the bar managers and the chefs to be creative,” Robinett tells me. “The differences are kind of our touch.”

Soon the small plates started rolling out, and our hands were reaching shamelessly here and there. In a moment that I’m sure Isabella would have appreciated, I tasted a roasted Rappahannock oyster—smothered in bacon, spinach, fennel and Strega and served on the half shell—and was swept back to the family kitchen where my father used to serve up bacon-and-cheddar oysters straight from the cupcake pan onto Triscuits while quaffing Merlot and pontificating.

“Another thing I learned from Mike,” Robinett, most recently executive chef of Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore, later tells me, “he loves to have little bursts of flavor throughout the dishes. The inclusion of a little bit of chili, a little bit of heat, brings out the nuances, and little bits of acid here and there help balance the dish out.”

 Next came marinated beets, elevated by a luscious goat cheese mousse with blood orange and hazelnuts, Ricotta orechiette with pancetta, mushrooms, arugula, walnuts and pecorino, and falling-off-the-bone coriander-glazed pork ribs.

For me, it was the soft gnocchi with pork ragout that stole the show this night and that I later had to ask Robinett about. “I’ve made gnocchi a lot in my career,” he says. But Isabella showed him a new way. “I’d always been taught before to knead the dough. And with this, it’s a lot of potato, a little bit of flour, and then parmesan and egg, and you really don’t knead the dough. You put everything together and then pat it into a ball and then cut the gnocchi. And the inclusion of flour on the outside not only helps you with the emulsion of the sauce, the ragout, but it allows you to make a lighter more pillowy style of pasta.”

For dessert we, of course, ordered the zeppole again, but here served in a brown paper bag and accompanied by eggnog espuma, slightly more challenging to eat than in D.C., but just as captivating. The coconut panna cotta, a specialty of Robinett’s, served with blueberries, almond crumble and mint, added a lighter touch. Finally, we indulged in the chocolate fudge cake with salted caramel, one of Isabella’s staples.

“It’s something that I don’t think I can take off the menu at this point,” Robinett says. “People come here for it. People just eat it like crazy.”

Isabella has been busy over the past year, but tries to visit Richmond once a month. “When he’s down here, there’s constant chatter about how we can improve a dish or how we can change it,” says Robinett. “It’s just constant communication about what the ideas are now and looking ahead.”

“We’ve had a lot of fun and success here,” Isabella says. “It’s a cool city. It’s fun to come down and hang out.”

 “I always wanted to own my own restaurant that cooked a lot of different cuisines,” says Isabella, “and I knew if I got one, I was able to do 10. And 10 would turn into 20, and 20 would turn into 50. Hopefully we’ll take it to 100. The goal is to keep pushing and driving and striving.” GraffiatoDC.com, GraffiatoRVA.com

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