Chef Mike Isabella gave me 15 minutes of his time to (1) prove that he’s not the chauvinist “tool” blogs say he is and (2) convince me that prosecco from a tap is not trashy.
By 6:30 PM on a Wednesday, Graffiato was already booming with customers all looking for a “Jersey inspired meal” and to sneak a peek at one of Bravo’s Top Chefs.
What I found, while sipping sparkly from the second floor of Graffiato’s industrially designed space, is that Isabella is charming and indeed possesses the right amount of over-confidence needed to make it big. His blood, sweat and tears are dedicated to creating a dining experience his customers can call “home.”
Ariell Kirylo: I hear there are Jersey jokes flying around the kitchen a lot. What’s your favorite?
Mike Isabella: (Giggle) Actually, I don’t have a favorite one, but I do make a pizza called the Jersey Shore. I suppose that can be considered a joke in itself. It sells a lot ,and it shows what a good time we have here at Graffiato.
AK: James Horn, your GM and beverage director, is also a fellow New Jersian. Tell me something about Jersey most people don’t know.
MI: What the variety of reality shows don’t show you, is that Jersey has some of the greatest Italian food.
AK: Authentic Italian food?
MI: (Smiling) Well, authentic Italian-American food. I tell everyone my restaurant is Italian inspired. I’ve never been to Italy before, and people laugh at me, but since I grew up with this food, it’s authentic to me. When people ask if my food is northern or southern, I just respond it is New Jersey.
AK: You have lived in Jersey, NYC, Philly and Atlanta. What’s so great about DC?
MI: It’s the capital! I figure one day I can run for President.
AK: You seem to have dominated the East Coast with your cooking. What’s wrong with the West Coast?
MI: Nothing! I love San Fran, though I’m not a fan of LA. It’s just, I’m a north Jersey guy and being up here is just more my style. People here understand me more.
AK: What is it that Nor-Eastern people understand more?
MI: Up here, we just have a tougher attitude. I felt on the West Coast and down south people looked at me funny for how I talk. Also, it’s a faster pace and a little more go get ya’. (Grabbing hand motion.)
AK: Describe the feeling when you realized the cost to get this location up and running was $300,000 more than your estimated budget?
MI: How do you know these things?! (Nervous chuckle) I was scared of course, but we were fortunate enough to open up Graffiato with a line out the door every day. I know a lot of great people in DC who stood by my side. They knew they would eventually get paid.
AK: Graffiatoin Italian means “scratched.” What does this word mean to you?
MI: Well, Americans call it graffiti. Whether it’s on a tree or a wall or Egyptian hieroglyphics, for me “scratch” is the original form of expression. The concept of Graffiato is a recreation of my many childhood flavors. Whether it’s the cherry tomato spaghetti sauce or the chicken with peperoni sauce, each dish contains a special memory for me. Graffiato is really just me on a plate.
AK: What are some of your childhood dining memories that you have incorporated into the Graffiato concept?
MI: Graffiato is all about food and service. It’s like the restaurants in the Bronx or North Jersey. You know, those little holes in the wall with checkered table clothes? When you walk in, they already know what you want and they know your family. It’s all about food and service and feeling special. It’s not about the décor, or the lighting. I built Graffiato so YOU can come in here, have a meal and leave with a full stomach and fun time.
AK: If the concept/decor of Graffiato acted as a deeper message for society, what would it be?
MI: Take risks. I’ve taken risks my whole life. To have come from nothing and to now be something, it’s unbelievable. I took a risk to go on TV, I took a financial risk to quit my job, I took a risk to compete with the best chefs in the country for everyone to see. And here I am.
AK: And why Chinatown?
MI: From working with a lot of chefs who know what they’re doing, the one thing they’ll tell you is location, location, location. I really wanted to come into an old building and start from scratch. I looked here and around Dupont, but this location made more sense. I’m also right across the street from the Verizon Center.
AK: Coming from a long-time practitioner of the liquid gold, prosecco on tap sounds degrading. Where did you get this idea from and how can I be convinced this is the new way to drink it?
MI: First off, Graffiato needs to represent me. I like to have fun, I like to party, I like to drink, I like to have good times and I don’t like to be too serious all the time. I can work and play at the same time. So that became part of our beverage concept.Chef Michael Whitein New York is doing something similar with wine on tap, so I thought, how can I take the next step? Besides, all my wife drinks is sparkling. I told James, I said “Bro, you gotta find it”; he said “done.”
MI: We have 25 feet of tubing in order to keep the pressure to an exact effervescence. People need to understand that prosecco doesn’t have as many bubbles as champagne. At $7 a glass it’s a great choice! On a Friday night the tables are filled with flutes because people want to try it. It’s 70% of my wine sales and we go through 2-3 kegs a day.
AK: Late-night food option at Graffiato – why do you think DC has so little to offer in this “food bracket?”
MI: DC is a growing culinary scene. I think due to the transitional nature of this city, DC was mostly a steak and potato place. I’ve been here five years and the change I’ve seen is remarkable. The growth is shown with the sprouting up of small businesses and restaurants. In Jersey there are 24 hour diners – I want that same availability (to an extent) at Graffiato.
AK: What kind of characters show up late night?
MI: At midnight, you’ll see a crowd of people from the industry for drinks and pizza. The only VIP in my restaurant are those that are industry related. We slave 14-17 hours a day and I know what it is like. I want to give back to the people who inspired me.
AK: DC is also missing a good deli. Can we count on you to open one?
MI: (Smile) There have been talks. I’m not ready yet, but maybe in the future. I definitely have ideas for other restaurant concepts. Also, I heardEatalyis coming to DC in a couple of years. That would be beautiful.
AK: How long do you think you can maintain the hands-on celeb chef role, working 14-17 hours a day?
MI: I’ve been working my a-s off my whole life. A long time to come.
AK: Being a celebrity chef comes with its own hardships and criticism. You have been called a “sexist” and another word for “jerk.” How do you deal with it?
MI: I don’t really let those words bother me. When I first went on Top Chef Vegas and people were calling me a sexist, it really hurt me. I realized that you have to be careful about what you say and though I was good friends with Jen (cast member and supposed victim of Isabella’s sexism), I was just joking around. If you saw me on the All-Stars season, you saw that I was a different person. I showed the real me – the guy who grew up cooking with his Grandmother.
AK: I saw your wedding photos on washingtonpost.com. Why did you choose to have these photos published?
MI: My life is 95% to the public. I’m fine with it and I think it’s a good thing. I’ve been slowly opening up all the doors for everyone to see my life.
AK: Both you and your wife have tattoos. What’s your next tatt?
MI: I’m getting my entire calf done in an all-underwater theme. Right now I have a sketch of an octopus. Later I’ll get some snakes and crustaceans.
Name a DC neighborhood you would …
Raise a family in: I want to raise my kids in the city. I think Dupont would be the place for me.
Sing loudly: Nats Park!
People watch: Probably Georgetown.
Walk around shirtless: I’ll walk around every neighborhood shirtless, I don’t care!