In the final episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars,” Mike Isabella wowed judges with a red pepperoni-based sauce. Gail Simmons, one of the judges on the show, proclaimed it a masterpiece — praising its texture, consistency and flavor.
The show, with its soap-opera plot and quirky challenges, propelled several contestants to stardom. Isabella, a North New Jersey native in his mid-30s, would go on to earn runner-up honors in the competition.
He was already a fixture in D.C. culinary circles for having been executive chef at José Andrés’ restaurant Zaytinya. But his following grew after viewers got to see his antics, charm and skills on the show.
As “Top Chef” senior judge Tom Colicchio put it: “He can make really good food.”
After taping the show last year, Isabella came back to D.C. and in June opened Graffiato, a new restaurant in the heart of Chinatown that’s already a hit with patrons.
Fans of the show and local foodies have flocked to the venue for a chance to see the celebrity chef work the kitchen and to try his formidable pepperoni sauce.
“I got wildly recognized for it on a national level. Millions of people want to know about it,” Isabella said about the sauce. “And for me, it was kind of playing around with something and hopefully it would work out.”
The pepperoni sauce, which is served with chicken, is one of the staples at Graffiato, which also features octopus, risotto and bone marrow on the menu.
The restaurant itself is across from the Verizon Center. The bar area on the first floor is a chic, classy yet casual dining space. The walls around the bar are painted metallic gray to accentuate a posh look for the more sophisticated happy-hour crowd. Tables and booths are directly across from the bar area and the open kitchen. The second-floor dining area — with its eggshell-white walls — has a clean Pottery Barn feel to it, although Isabella argues it is more of an “industrial” concept.
As he put it: “When I walked in this building a year ago, it was an empty shell. An empty shell with these old ceilings, floors and walls. And I said, ‘Wow, I’ve been looking a year for this. I just found it.’ I said, ‘Let’s put a wood oven right in the middle of the restaurant. Let’s put some tables and chairs, and let’s open up next week.’”
The vibe at Graffiato produces an unpretentious dining experience. Isabella said his goal is for the restaurant to be comfortable enough for summertime tourists in flip-flops and trendy enough for the suit-and-tie crowd after work.
“I want everybody to come in here. I want everybody to feel comfortable. I don’t want it to feel pretentious. And that’s the No. 1 thing when people come in these doors,” Isabella said.
And thus far, a lot of people are coming in. Staff members say they have seen several Capitol Hill bigwigs for dinner, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
The ambiance and location have something to do with it, but Isabella admitted some people visit the restaurant just to see “the guy from the show.”
“You know, as a celebrity chef, people want to talk to you. People want to see what you do. People want to know about you and I thought this was the best way to express myself, whether I’m working on a line back here or I’m on the pizza line or I’m upstairs in the cold kitchen. Everyone gets to see me. Everyone gets to say hello; shake my hand,” Isabella said.
Ultimately, the menu’s strength, he acknowledged, is what keeps the place buzzing.
Along with his simply delicious pepperoni sauce, Isabella prepares his signature roasted potato gnocchi that was featured on “Top Chef All-Stars,” a tasty roasted cauliflower plate and homemade spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil.
“I tell everyone who comes to my restaurant, they gotta eat my pasta. You can’t leave here without eating my pasta,” Isabella said.
Fellow “Top Chef All-Stars” contestant Angelo Sosa agrees. After visiting Graffiato soon after it opened, Sosa said Isabella is making “the best spaghetti in America.”
Rounding out the menu is Isabella’s offering of pizzas, which he said are done the right way. The “White House,” with its mozzarella, ricotta, prosciutto and black pepper honey toppings, is quickly becoming the most popular one. Another fan favorite is the aptly named “Jersey Shore” pie, served with fried calamari, provolone and cherry pepper aioli.
Washington is home for the chef and his wife, Stacy. The couple work together, and they live around the corner from Graffiato. When Isabella is not working 14-hour days, they frequent other eateries to support local chefs.
The Isabellas have big plans for their brand. They have a cookbook due out next year, and five years down the road, they hope to open Graffiato pizzerias and other restaurants with different concepts throughout the Washington area.
“In my world, it is about keeping it local and being a part of D.C. I don’t want to travel all over the world in different restaurants. For me, it’s about being here, with my family. So I plan on being here forever, and I feel I’m part of the culinary scene,” Isabella said. “By being on TV and opening up a restaurant, I’m representing D.C. to the fullest on a national level, and I want to continue to do that.”
For now, the chef plans to keep patrons happy, and he expects more lawmakers, judges and Cabinet secretaries to come check out his food.
He already cooked for first lady Michelle Obama when he ran the kitchen at Zaytinya. Now he’s hoping the entire first family stops by for dinner one of these days. And he knows what he will make for them if they do: “My spaghetti and my gnocchi, my pizza, my chicken and my pepperoni sauce.”