“The last dish I want to eat on Earth is my mother’s gravy before I die,” Colicchio told Isabella. “It’s just a very simple dish, but [yours] was so soulful. I really, really enjoyed it.”
That’s when Isabella lost it, a brash, tattoo-covered Jersey boy broken down by the kindness of strangers. His eyes turned glassy. He put his right hand to his brow, as if to hide his emotions. He looked up, swallowed a time or two and sighed audibly. He then shrugged and cocked his head to the right, a street hustler’s move to try to regain his composure.
“What’s going through your head right now?” host Padma Lakshmi asked him.
“I was really close to my grandmother when she passed away. I was younger, so I didn’t understand it,” responded Isabella, who learned to cook by his grandmother’s side. “I didn’t cook [Italian food] for pretty much my whole career, even at home, because I didn’t want to remind me of that.”
Not to put too fine a point on this, but that moment helped redefine Mike Isabella — not only to viewers who had once seen him as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal who disrespected women, but also to some of the chefs who competed against him.
“I told him, ‘If you cook from this place, your food will be amazing,’ ” says Carla Hall, the former Wheaton-based caterer and budding daytime TV personality who made it to the “All-Stars” finals.
Richard Blais, the modernist chef who would ultimately cook against Isabella in the “All-Stars” finale, was inspired by his competitor’s success to continue to mine his own English-Irish roots. “The food he wants to cook is close to his soul,” Blais reflects.
To Isabella’s wife, Stacy, the episode did more than show her husband’s softer side, “which you don’t get to see very often.” It also confirmed that Graffiato, Isabella’s forthcoming Chinatown restaurant, was headed in the right direction. It would channel not only Isabella’s experiences in chef-driven kitchens such as Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia and Zaytinya in Penn Quarter, but also his New Jersey red-sauce past. “I don’t know if that would really have happened without that [ancestry] challenge,” Stacy says.
For Isabella himself, the moment was more than a coronation of a grandmother’s influence on his cooking. It was a flash of personal acceptance. Isabella was not an aimless teenager anymore, prone to drinking and drugging and petty vandalism. He had become what his maternal grandmother, Antoinette Antonacci, had always wanted him to be: respectable.
Isabella has had, understandably, a habit of censoring his own past during his two turns in the “Top Chef” franchise. “My parents split up when I was 3,” he told the camera during his “All-Stars” appearance. “I grew up with my mom.”