When I spoke with Mike Isabella 2 1/2 months ago, he was getting his hands dirty and doing all of the gritty behind the scenes work to open up his new restaurant Graffiato, located in Washington D.C.’s Penn Quarter. After some delays and setbacks along the way, Graffiato finally debuted, which meant it was time for a visit to check out the place on opening weekend.
Graffiato has a two-story space which showcases floor to ceiling windows, inviting passersby to take a peek at the hustle and bustle of the front room bar, which seats about a dozen patrons. In the back of the ground floor is the large wood oven where pizzas and a range of innovative dishes are prepared, along with a small dining area.
The main dining room is upstairs, with several rows of tables in one large, open space. It’s also where you’ll find the seven-person ham bar, a charcuterie station with hanging knives and cleavers where a multitude of cured meats can be sliced and sampled, and where mozzarella is freshly stretched and prepared by hand.
Top Chef fans will notice a few familiar items on the Italian-inspired menu which consists of small plates designed to be shared by the table. Most notably, Isabella’s famous pepperoni sauce, which had judge Gail Simmons oohing and aahing, is served with chicken thighs prepared in the wood oven. The sauce is as good as advertised and catches all of that delicious flavor without being greasy or drippy, as you might expect.
A variety of fresh pastas are served, including a polenta dish featuring spicy pork meatballs and a delightfully soft and runny egg, which is made to be mixed in with the polenta for a smooth, creamy bite. You’ll also find another Top Chef holdover, roasted potato gnocchi with braised pork shank and burrata cheese.
A basket of fresh breads can be ordered as a small starter, and a plate of tasty, flavored pistachios is served with your arrival. You’re encouraged to order plates in a succession of one or two at a time to pace yourselves and enjoy a leisurely dining experience.
Don’t pass over the specials either, which include the aforementioned freshly stretched mozzarella cheese, served with a fava bean relish and sprinkles of olive oil and balsamic. Perhaps the favorite food memory of my life thus far came during a visit to a small vineyard and farm in Italy, where mozzarella cheese which had literally just been prepared was sampled along with the wine. This mozzarella cheese might not live up to those lofty standards – and the rolling hills of the Italian countryside as compared to the black pavement of a street behind the Verizon Center might have something to do with that – but the melt in your mouth, supple texture of the cheese along with its powerful flavor create a wonderful, lasting memory of its own.
There are dozens of wines to choose from, including a number of local selections, and all of the wines on the menu are available by the glass. There’s also prosecco on tap, which makes for a great open or close to a meal, craft beers and a handful of cocktails.
The “Gin & Juice Tonic” features lime-quinine ice cubes which provide added zest and zing as they melt and you continue to indulge. They did not, however, mask the tiny glass in which the cocktails are served. While I’m sure an equal or near-equal amount of liquid was in the beverage as you would find elsewhere in a larger glass stuffed with ice cubes, there is nonetheless something deflating about a $9 cocktail served in a glass two inches high.
One highlight from the desert menu is the chocolate tart with olive oil and sea salt gelato. Dig in and find a rich, chocolate filling served in a flaky pie crust, mixed with a savory touch from the olive oil, the perfect amount of salt to compliment the sweet, and a refreshing scoop of gelato. But you can also go off-menu and ask for the nightly made Italian zeppoles, if they haven’t run out of them yet, served with strawberry powdered sugar and balsamic chocolate dipping sauce.
As with any restaurant on opening weekend, there are a few minor kinks that need to be ironed out. Too many tables are crammed into the straight rows upstairs, making it difficult to squeeze into your spot, and the AC was on at such full blast that even in the numbing heat and humidity of the nation’s capitol in summertime it felt like long sleeves and layers were needed indoors.
The food and the service were both excellent, however, and will keep you coming back for more. Isabella made the rounds through the dining room chatting with guests and welcoming the crowds, embracing the dual roles of chef and celebrity. Whether you’re a foodie, a Top Chef devotee or just someone looking for a tasty bite, Graffiato is well worth the trip.
Graffiato is located at 707 6th Street NW, in Washington D.C., and is around the block from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop. You can visit GraffiatoDC.com for more information or to make reservations.
This story was first published by Jake Emen on Yahoo News on June 25, 2011