Street art to savor
At Graffiato, the top chef makes a point
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011
Graffiato bears an Italian name and dispenses pizza and pasta (and prosecco on tap). But please, do chef Mike Isabella a favor: Don't call the place Italian. Italian-inspired, New Jersey-inspired, yes. Just not Italian.
"I've never been to Italy," says the headliner at the restaurant whose name references graffiti and translates as "scratched." The food he's serving in a spare, two-story building behind Verizon Center - mobbed since it opened in June thanks to the chef's star turn on the reality TV series "Top Chef" - pays homage to the flavors of his childhood in Bergen County, N.J. Isabella, 36, remembers his grandmother throwing scraps of meat into her sauces, and he follows her example; pepperoni stings the sauce that drapes his now-famous chicken thighs.
As any food junkie can tell you, the dish made its debut on the spring finale of "Top Chef All-Stars." Customers order "100 a night" of the snack, says the chef, who previously cooked in the mile-long shadow of Jose Andres at Zaytinya, the modern Greek draw in Penn Quarter.
Anyone who still thinks Washington is a dull dining scene hasn't stepped inside Graffiato. Try to snag a reservation online for other than 5 p.m. or 9 p.m., and you might have to wait until next month. The crowd is as enticing as anything that appears on the table; if I were younger and singler, I'd make a frequent date with the bar here. One reason Isabella wanted two exhibition kitchens, one per floor, is so he wouldn't have to stop cooking to honor photo requests during service. A stream of famous chefs have swooped in to wish Isabella well (there's nothing like a side of Eric Ripert or Marcus Samuelsson to enhance dinner), but the head-turners extend to the food.
There's a reason every table appears to host a plate of agnolotti. The rectangular pillows stuffed with what tastes like summer (but is in fact a sort of pudding made with fresh corn and mascarpone) are among the finest pastas coming out of any kitchen. The neat lineup of hand-made bundles gets pine nuts for texture, and sauteed chanterelles and a light wash of butter to gild what's already glorious.
Like every other newcomer, Graffiato lists cheese and charcuterie, a trend I'm happy to push over a cliff at this point. Far more revealing of the establishment is the section of starters labeled "Vegetate." Not all of the small plates forsake meat - the delicious spiced beets are tossed with almonds fried with pork - but the majority do. The most alluring is
baby Japanese eggplant, a still life in purple and green and as sweet as it is sour. Cauliflower tossed with mint and pecorino is another charmer. The slacker in the field is fennel shaved to look like noodles, which not even roasted hazelnuts and apricot can enliven.
Whether in fashion or food, no one does simple better than the Italians. Order the spaghetti at Graffiato to see what I mean. The dish is just a handful of good ingredients - hand-cut spaghetti, garlic, (Thai) basil, cherry tomatoes poached in olive oil and freed of their skins - left alone to work their magic on the palate. Isabella calls the combination "my favorite dish on the menu," and I can taste why. The tang of the tomato and the breeze from the basil infuse each bite; grated Parmesan adds a whisper of richness. If this is anything close to what Isabella ate as a kid, I want to come back as him (give or take some of his 14 tattoos).
Other required eating at Graffiato should include the rich polenta topped with soft and juicy meatballs; the gnocchi arranged with (how can you go wrong?) braised pork and creamy burrata; and bone marrow that combines bread crumbs, bacon, shallots and melted fat in the trough of a split bone. Its decadence is tempered by a squeeze of a lemon half with caramelized sugar. You can skip the Caesar salad, oddly garnished with cubes of fried cream cheese, and the muted pork ribs with their drift of yogurt.
Libations vary, too. I love the fire-and-ice combination of the house punch, but the cloying gin-and-wine-based Virginia Is for Lovers tastes like a campaign to get people to move to Maryland. And red wine is routinely served warm.
This is a kitchen that typically knows how to edit itself. It has yet to master pizza, however. Both times I've ordered a pie at Graffiato, I've wished I had ordered a pasta instead. The pizza dough needs more time to proof, and more savor. The toppings are fanciful, though, particularly the crackling fried squid scattered atop the Jersey Shore and the peppered honey streaked across the cheesy White House.
The blur of black? That would be the T-shirted staff racing to deliver and remove plates. The servers are young, engaging and quick with recommendations. One quibble: I know I'm not at Tosca or Fiola, but, guys, can you slow down a little? I don't have to leave in 20 minutes.
Graffiato is not much more than concrete floors, brick walls, a skylight and a collection of cleavers framing the second-floor kitchen. (The last detail, says the chef, captures "my edgier side.") The minimalism is intentional. "I wanted the focus to be on the food," says Isabella, who nevertheless spent $1.5 million on the project.
The hard surfaces and the beautiful people who routinely fill the joint create an irritation. As a friend and I exited the boom box with happy bellies and ringing ears, he suggested a next time with a twist: "The restroom might be the best place to have dinner."
Graffiato might not be fully Italian, but it is thoroughly fun.