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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.