December 12, 2016
Earlier this year, the Restaurant Association of Greater Washington named Mike Isabella their 2016 restaurateur of the year. He had already been a consensus favorite for the unofficial title of Hardest Working Chef and Restaurateur in the area. In 2011, Isabella opened his first District restaurant (or “concept” as he likes to call it), the Italian-inspired Graffiato. Less than six years later, he runs a small empire of nine restaurants – and that’s not including a branch of his Greek Taverna, Kapnos, at Reagan Airport, as well as three concession stands at Nationals Park.
Isabella’s concepts run the gamut from Mexican to Greek to French to Japanese, but his first love was Italian, which makes Graffiato an appropriate cornerstone. Certainly the Italian-American’s native northern New Jersey has no shortage of superlative trattorias and osterias, and at Graffiato, Isabella attempts to channel both the atmosphere and the food he grew up with.
“I kind of wanted to give you the feel of… the old school places where I grew up in Jersey,” he explains. “Those hole-in-the-walls where you get great food. It’s not about the ambiance; it’s about the food and the service.” With its unpretentious, minimalist décor, especially on the ground level, Graffiato is happy to let its food do the talking, but a hole-in-the-wall it is not. The downstairs has a vaguely industrial look, marked by exposed brick walls and steel stools and chandeliers. A long bar stretches almost the entire length of the wall, down to an open kitchen in the back. (Incidentally, this is the only bar in the District that offers Prosecco on tap.) The upstairs dining room is simple, but never shabby. Isabella and his father-in-law painstakingly built all of the wooden tables, as well as the large wine hutch on wall in front.
While the menu at Graffiato often sticks to its Italian roots, the place is a farm-to-table restaurant at heart. Many offerings are locally sourced, including an appealing list of East Coast wines and beers. The names of partnering local farms are written with pride on a large sign above the upstairs charcuterie bar — or “ham bar,” as the staff calls it. In addition to providing most of the menu’s produce, some of these partners are responsible for the stellar Virginia hams and other cured meats that comprise Graffiato’s ever-changing charcuterie platters ($18/$28). The six seats at the ham bar overlook an open window into the kitchen, and offer an entertaining view of the chefs doing their slicing and carving. But Graffiato’s true centerpiece is its wood oven, which produces not only pleasantly charred pizza crust, but other flavorful dishes like the crispy cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. The Roasted Cauliflower ($11), in particular, is hearty and flavorful with a thick but not overpowering romesco sauce and a dash of mint.
The Jersey Shore pizza ($18) is the perfect homage to Isabella’s summer haunts: a simple blend of provolone and tomatoes, topped with crispier calamari than can even be found on the boardwalks of Point Pleasant. The kitchen also serves up fresh homemade pastas, like the Smoked Mushroom Ravioli ($15), hand-filled with a hearty blend of butternut squash, chiles and pumpkin seeds.
Isabella and his team pulls out all the stops for the holiday season; their traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes will be available for the week leading up to Christmas (December 19 through 24). The five-course meal ($69 per person, beverage pairing option available) is Graffiato’s take on the traditional Italian Christmas feast, which boasts prawns saltimbocca and cioppino, among others favorites.
Graffiato’s location, just behind the Verizon Center, holds appeal for legions of hungry Wizards and Caps fans, or for that matter, audiences emerging from shows at the nearby Shakespeare Theater. It’s no surprise that Graffiato is Mike Isabella’s most heavily trafficked outpost. Perhaps it was the resulting buzz that inspired Isabella to open a second location a few hours south in Richmond, Virginia. Washington, D.C.’s restaurateur of the year no longer belongs to District alone.