Washington, D.C.’s burgeoning culinary scene received a big boost last month with the opening of the area’s most hotly anticipated restaurant.
Mike Isabella, formerly the head chef at Zaytinya, branched out on his own, opening his first-ever restaurant: Graffiato.
Isabella is best known for his performance this past spring on Top Chef All-Stars. There, squaring off against 20 of the nation’s best chefs, Isabella made it all the way to the final episode, finishing second in an extremely close competition.
Fresh off his near-win, Isabella returned to the city he’d already gained a culinary foothold, D.C., to open his first restaurant.
Finding a location in an old printing building on 6th Street between F and H St. NW, behind the Verizon Center, Isabella set about building his dream restaurant: an Italian-themed eatery inspired by his grandmother’s cooking.
The design of the two-story restaurant is intentional minimalist, with sealed concrete floors and wooden tables adorned with no more than a tin can filled with fresh herbs. Earth tones—grey, brown and black—dominate the space. However, it does not come across as drab. Rather, with how packed the restaurant has been since opening day two weeks ago, the space feels lively and energetic.
The menu is Isabella’s own creation, his unique take on Italian cuisine. When people think of Italian, sharing large plates comes to mind. Graffiato flips that notion, serving instead small plates—Italian tapas—still made for sharing.
A meal there can consist of six courses and good hour of dining. You can pick and choose as you please, but waiters recommend trying something from every section.
Upon arrival, customers are greeted with a gratis bowl of spiced pistachios. Then, it’s a cheese and ham course, with sheep, goat and cow’s milk cheeses, all from farms within the D.C. area (although there is an Italian gorgonzola on the menu). The same goes for the ham plate, with all slices coming from pigs raised in the area.
Following those appetizers is a vegetable course, with fresh produce cooked up in intriguing ways. These include bell peppers blistered in the kitchen’s wood burning oven and woodsy mushrooms with sweet cherry peppers, also roasted in the oven.
That course is followed by pizza, with fantastic choices that are nothing akin to what you’d expect from an Italian kitchen. These are pizzas taken to the next level.
Sure, there’s a classic choice with a tomato base, but the more innovative pies are the ones you want to try. The best may be the Countryman, which comes with black truffles and fontina cheese. It’s served with a sunny-side up duck egg which, table-side, is smeared all over the pie, adding an amazing creaminess to the pizza.
After pizza comes a typical Italian pasta course, although these too are given special twists. Polenta is paired with pork meatballs and parmesan cheese, as well as another duck egg on top, again adding depth to the plate. A potato gnocchi arrives on top of braised short ribs, burrata cheese and baby arugula, giving the dish an unexpected bite.
The last course (unless you choose dessert) is meat-based, all straight from the wood oven. Among the most popular choices are the crispy chicken thighs, which are served above a spicy, blended pepperoni sauce. It’s the dish that nearly won Isabella Top Chef All Stars.
Even better though, are his braised pork ribs, which come out both crispy and succulent. They fall off the bone, yet have a wonderful, snappy, herb-crusted exterior, earned from a few minutes in the wood-fired oven.
Drinks at the restaurant are reasonably priced, with a number of good wines in the $30 range. Cocktails come in at $9, with beers between $6-7. There is one special, a bucket of miniature beers (Budweiser, Rolling Rock, Corona and Miller High Life), six 8-ounce beers for just $15.
Plates typically run between $10-12 and the restaurant recommends about four plates per person for a meal. Since they are designed to share, a single trip to Graffiato can cover most of the menu, and it can be done without breaking the bank.
So while Graffiato is certainly packed thanks to Isabella’s television fame, it’s worth a shot to try and score a reservation at what is right now Washington D.C.’s most sought after restaurant.
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