It’s not often that we write about a restaurant as soon as it opens, but Mike Isabella’s Graffiato was about as flawless as a debut as we could have imagined. Even though the Top Chef alum’s restaurant has now been open for several weeks, we have heard such positive word of mouth that we were eagerly counting down the days until our reservation last Wednesday night.
With our friends Pat and Fraser, we headed to Chinatown while discussing our game plan on what to order. When we arrived, the place was full to the brim but we were immediately seated by the hostess after checking in for our 8:30pm reservation. The modern yet simple interior was very inviting, and with two floors of space with a kitchen on each floor, Graffiato can certainly accommodate many guests.
Once we were seated upstairs, the four of us deliberated over ordering a la carte or getting the tasting menu for $55 per person. The tasting menu limited us to four courses, and while everyone would receive different plates, we still wanted to have the freedom of choosing our own dishes as we went along. Thus, we went the a la carte route. I don’t think any of us could imagine sharing 16 dishes!
Of course before ordering our food, the ladies couldn’t resist indulging themselves with a few glasses of prosecco. And how could you blame them when it’s the only venue in the city serving the sparkling Italian wine on tap? They also carried several local brews including DC Brau and Port City.
Even though Isabella is from Jersey, Graffiato gives off a sense of DC pride as it sources its ingredients from nearby farms and vendors. It emits an authentic neighborhood vibe despite Isabella’s nationally known mug from Top Chef. The fact that Mike himself was making rounds with customers all night made you feel at home which resulted in a nice, laid-back atmosphere.
Sorry for going off tangent – let’s get onto the food!
Up first was the bread basket which featured polenta, focaccia and raisin bread, along with olive oil jam and fresh ricotta. If this was a taste of what was to come, then we were in for one heck of a meal. All four of us devoured the freshly-prepared bread while scraping the ramekin clean of any leftover ricotta. Our only negative comment would be the fact that bread isn’t included and will cost you $5, but maybe they are going for a European feel there.
Next was the fresh stretched mozzarella with fava bean relish. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. I have never tasted mozzarella so fresh with such an engaging texture. Well done, Mike.
Following the excellent mozzarella was the polenta, accompanied with three spicy pork meatballs as well as a soft egg. I really enjoyed the meatballs even though they seemed to fall apart a little too easily. Blending the over-easy egg with the polenta and meatballs created a rich sauce which made the dish even more pleasurable.
The next plate was wood-roasted mushrooms with cherry peppers and mustard. While this should have been served earlier given the complexity of the previous dish, plus the fact the fungi are served cold, it was still another solid choice. The mushrooms were rich in flavor and were one of Pat’s favorite items of the night.
Our collective heads then turned towards the chicken thighs featuring Chef Isabella’s infamous pepperoni sauce. In all honesty, it didn’t quite meet the hype after Gail Simmons gushed about it back on Top Chef. That’s not to say it wasn’t good, because it most certainly was, but it wasn’t particularly mind-blowing. It more or less had the taste and consistency of wing sauce (we thought it would be thicker), but with a hint of pepperoni. The chicken, however, was excellently cooked.
While the pepperoni sauce was slightly underwhelming, our next dish shot us right back to euphoria. Words cannot express how delicious the gnocchi was. Just order it – you can thank us later. Served with braised pork shank and burrata, this dish was simply exceptional. The gnocchi was extraordinarily delicate while the pork was the perfect complement to Isabella’s pasta. Kudos to the chef on this one.
Our first pizza of the night (yes, we ordered two) was the Jersey Shore. Featuring fried tomato, provolone, cherry pepper aioli, and pieces of fried calamari placed atop each slice, this wasn’t your average pizza. The ingredients were fun, but there just wasn’t that much flavor coming out of the pizza. The calamari provided a nice, crunchy touch while the aioli almost tasted like the spicy mayo you would find on a California roll. At least the crust was nice and crispy, but as a whole, it was just lacking something.
Following the pizza was the wood-roasted octopus. Served with chickpeas and baby artichokes, we thought it was just average. In fact, I might have enjoyed the artichokes and its sauce more than the octopus. While nicely cooked, it lacked a distinctive char flavor that set it apart from superior versions found at Cava and Isabella’s old haunt Zaytinya.
Up next was the bone marrow. While Rachel and I had never had marrow before, Pat and Fraser recently ate it at Marrakesh and wanted to try it again. Served inside a split-open bone, the marrow was stuffed with pistachio, bread crumbs, and bacon crumbles. It was granular in texture and incorporated a bacon flavor that was a tad overwhelming at times. Interesting dish, but I’ll probably pass on this one next time.
Our second pizza of the evening, for a lack of a better term, knocked it out of the park. If you should order one pizza when dining at Graffiato, we highly recommend the Countryman. I’m glad our waiter purposely served the Jersey Shore first, as the Countryman was just on a whole other level. Topped with black truffles, fontina, and a duck egg whose yolk is spread over the surface by our server, this felt like you were eating deliciously rich pasta that happened to be on top of a pizza crust. Between the gooey egg yolk, robust fontina, and subtle hints of black truffles, it was a hit amongst all four of us. We have heard good things about the White House pizza too and may have to get that one next time as well.
We somehow still had room for dessert, so we ordered the chocolate tart as well as the unlisted zeppoles. Yes, the latter is not on the menu, but within less than a month it’s already achieved “Animal Style”-like status where it’s a secret but, well, not really a secret.
One reason why the zeppoles are not on the menu is because they are cooked to order, and they do take some time before they ultimately reach the table. It was well worth the wait, however, as they were purely outstanding. These fried dough balls, dusted with strawberry flavored powdered sugar, were piping hot and utterly delightful.
Meanwhile the chocolate tart was accompanied with olive oil and sea salt gelato, which gave the dessert a nice balance of sweet and salty. The tart even had some saltiness to it, but in the end, I think the zeppoles might have been our favorite of the two desserts.
Overall, we walked away very impressed with Graffiato. It’s a positive sign when even our least favorite dish was still good, you know? The service was first-rate, the atmosphere was pleasant, and the food was consistently great. We honestly cannot wait to go back and try many more of Chef Isabella’s dishes, as long as we order the gnocchi and zeppoles, of course.