By Elana Schor - 08/03/11 11:35 PM EDT
In this blogged-out, Food-Networked era, the term “celebrity chef” can be a dig — conjuring memories of love-’em-or-hate-’em stars like Rachael Ray and Gordon Ramsay. But some famous toques wear the crown with ease, using their celebrity to welcome diners into the warmth of their inner circle.
Mike Isabella, creator of the cheeky-cool, tightrope-walking Chinatown hot spot Graffiato, is one of those chefs.
But while these greatest hits no doubt reel in many of the curious patrons who bring a din of chatter and swoons to Graffiato’s brick-lined walls every night, they are almost a distraction from its real achievement. Isabella is not executing the type of postmodern Italian that a Jose Andres might, let alone the traditional fare that a foray into his grandmother’s gnocchi suggests.
Rather, he puts his own personality on the plate every time — bold, eager to please and attuned to the potential for haute cuisine to be as comforting as a family dinner. Think majestically blistered wood-fired pizza with tangy provolone, fried calamari that somehow keeps the crunch in its breading and a red-pepper aioli that ties each bite together with humming heat.
The audacious appeal of this “Jersey Shore” pie is kicked up a notch by knowing how strongly it evokes the chef’s Garden State upbringing.
Similarly, the hand-stretched mozzarella is rendered extra-special by the chef’s avoidance of the shaping and brining that helps the cheese keep a predictably round shape. Isabella’s oblong disc of creamy delight arrives at the table still warm in its bath of fruity olive oil and an autumnal fava-bean relish, so delightful that extra bread to scoop up its juices ought to be mandatory.
Even the cheese plate, that staple of Serious Restaurants, is served with a house-made roasted garlic-dulce de leche jam that is — to quote “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio’s televised assessment of the aforementioned gnocchi — irrepressibly soulful. If you’re piqued enough to inquire about the jam’s genesis, be prepared for Isabella to stop by your table and offer to make an extra half-pint to order.
Not everything about the Graffiato experience is as accessible as its best dishes. The volume of exultant diners, who mosey up three or four deep to the marble-topped bar that curves around its industrial-chic ground floor, can make it difficult to hear a companion sitting just across from you.
A couple of plates inexplicably wilt for lack of Isabella’s obvious pizzazz, such as a too-simple spaghetti in salty poached tomato sauce and marinated olives somehow missing their brine. But even the less-than-stellar offerings spark conversation and connection to the kitchen in a fashion that Andres, Mario Batali and other A-list celebrity chefs can only hope for at this advanced stage in their careers.
And when Isabella hits, he hits big. The agnolotti, already rightly famous, twists fresh pasta ribbons around a filling of sweet corn with notes of mascarpone and a buttery, pine-nut-festooned sauce. It looks like a flower and tastes like a long, slow kiss from summer.
The chef’s Mediterranean riffs, likely honed during his acclaimed stint running the show at Andres’s Zaytinya, are equally worthy. Try the ribs, their perfectly seared herbed crust playing well with a coriander yogurt sauce, and marvel at how beautifully the meat falls from the bone. Wood-grilled octopus, scattered with crispy baby artichokes and a nutty chickpea puree, is succulent enough to order two servings at a time for a larger group.
Beyond that memorably personal Jersey pie, the pizzas are uniformly
excellent — not to mention appealingly priced on a menu where portions tend to run small. The Francophilic Countryman, a woodsy mélange of fontina cheese and black truffle sauce served with a runny duck egg swirled atop, and the sweet-hot White House, topped by pepper honey, are two other standouts.
Servers at Graffiato are well-trained in the chef’s ethos, offering pleasant gossip about the kitchen’s approach to a new dish and half-apologizing for Isabella’s predilection for playing bass-heavy rock whether the dining room is packed or merely full. Their patter jibes well with his gregarious style, though Graffiato is no place for parental visits or uber-romantic dates at this stage in its closely watched evolution.
The beverage program hits its highest note on wines, offering more than a dozen unsung Italian grapes such as Lagrein and Vermentino in addition to more famous Cabernet Francs and thirst-quenching Roses. Prosecco is available on tap, though the in-house carbonation differs little from bottled bubbles.
Beer and cocktails are poured slightly smaller than normal, but Peroni on draft and the bittersweet Virginia is For Lovers — a commingling of local gin and orange aperol, the lip-smacking punch at Isabella’s kicky dinner party — are well worth the higher price points.
Of course, no trip through the culinary consciousness of a celebrity chef would be complete without dessert. On that score, Isabella sticks to his familial bent by leading with his wife’s hearty Nutella sandwich cookies. A bit heavy on the sugar, their sweetness is balanced well by an extra scoop of sea-salt gelato, the same flavor that also suffers a mismatch with an otherwise memorable pitch-dark chocolate tart.
The winner among the final courses, however, is an off-menu item: ricotta zeppoles, fried orbs that leave a lemony trail on the palate and come coated in a crunchy strawberry powdered sugar. One bite recalls fruity Pop Rocks candy layered upon feather-light cheese, a high-class take on fond memories of teenage-year street fairs.
The dessert is, incredibly, a microcosm of the world Isabella creates at Graffiato: adventurous but not pretentious, confident in its execution even when a dish falls flat. His highly personal creation is already flying high.
707 6th St. NW (202) 289-3600 www.graffiatodc.com
Hours: Lunch, 12-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner, 5 p.m.-12 a.m. Sunday-Tuesday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Sharing-plate prices range from $6 to $19. Reservations strongly recommended; waits can run upwards of 60 minutes.
Ideal Meal: Roasted cauliflower; cheese plate; octopus; sweet corn agnolotti; Countryman pizza; zeppoles.