Mike Isabella is a (grand)mama’s boy

June 21, 2011

Mike Isabella’s plate of pork-shank ragu with potato gnocchi and whipped burrata had transformed the “Top Chef All-Stars” judges, those made-for-TV snarks, into sycophants.

The March 2 “Ellis Island” challenge had asked the contestants to cook dishes inspired by their ancestry, and as he reflected on that ragu, head judge Tom Colicchio, a New Jersey native like Isabella, beamed like a first-time father, seemingly lost in his own nostalgia of red-sauce gravy.

“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.”

That is true — up to a point. Isabella lived with his father from approximately ages 10 through 16. The chef, now 36, doesn’t like to mention that, because he’s estranged from his dad for reasons he prefers not to discuss; they have not spoken in years, even as Isabella has become a small-scale celebrity in the world of reality TV and professional kitchens.

The teenage Isabella certainly gave his guardians plenty of reasons to worry. He drank. He smoked weed. He racked up debts. He had two stints in rehab, including the entire summer after his junior year in high school. “I was a wild child,” he says. His defiant ways didn’t always endear him to Antonacci, either, who would sometimes cry about her grandson’s recreational drug use. She had already gone through hell with a son addicted to heroin.

Joanne Isabella remembers her son as an average student with no interest in college once he graduated from high school. Mike did have, she recalls, a precocious taste for foods that most Jersey pre-teens would never touch. He liked Korean, Japanese and Greek cuisines, Joanne recalls. He even liked the pig’s feet that his grandmother used for making her slow-simmered red gravy.

His interest in his grandmother’s cooking, Isabella admits, had much to do with the fact that his mom was a vegetarian while he was growing up in Little Ferry, outside Hackensack. His mother prepared a mean multi-layered eggplant Parm, the son recalls, but mostly he remembers an endless parade of hummus, tabbouleh and other health-food standards of the 1970s and ’80s. Isabella was, without question, an oddball eater for a kid. “I didn’t start eating chocolate until I started cooking,” he says. “I thought it was too sweet.”

Isabella’s decision to enter the culinary world was not exactly based on a desire to become the next Jacques Pepin. “I wanted to travel. I wanted to get a job anywhere in the world,” he says. “I knew that [cooking] was one of the outlets that would help me do that.”

He worked hard to put himself through what was then called New York Restaurant School (now the Art Institute of New York City). He worked six nights a week at a restaurant in New Brunswick, N.J., took the early-morning train to Manhattan five days a week for school and still managed, on occasion, to help his older sister, Diana, raise her young son. The siblings were, for financial reasons, living together at the time.

After graduating from restaurant school and kicking around New York kitchens, Isabella joined the staff at Alma de Cuba in Philly, where he worked the line. Restaurateur Stephen Starr would soon find other jobs for his young chef, who would eventually move to El Vez (where he worked for future Iron Chef Jose Garces) and to Washington Square (where he helped open the short-lived restaurant for chef Marcus Samuelsson). Isabella then left Philly for Kyma restaurant in Atlanta, where he got a chance to work with Greek ingredients and dishes.

In 2007, Isabella took the chef job at Jose Andres’s Zaytinya and asked his then-girlfriend, Stacy, to join him in Washington. She did. Two years later, when Isabella was tapped to compete on “Top Chef: Las Vegas,” she was stressing over at least one part of her decision to relocate: the fact that Isabella would be gone for five weeks during taping. “We were planning our wedding,” Stacy Isabella says. “For me, that was the tough part.”

It would get harder for Stacy after the first episode of “Top Chef: Las Vegas,” when her fiance made a ham-fisted attempt at a joke as fellow contestant and former Le Bernardin sous-chef Jennifer Carroll kept pace with him in a clam-shucking contest. Isabella’s inner Jersey boy made an appearance: “No offense,” he told home viewers, “but a girl should never be at the same level I am.”

The blowback was immediate. Readers to Tom Sietsema’s weekly chat filled his inbox with comments, ready to boycott Zaytinya over Isabella’s remark. The hate was more pronounced online, naturally. Even “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons fired a shot on her blog: “I was shocked and disappointed when I recently viewed this first episode and heard Mike Isabella’s sexist commentary. Hot-tempered and foulmouthed indeed.”

Stacy Isabella had to resist the urge to protect her fiance. “He got a lot of negative feedback, and it was hard for me to see,” she says. “It was harder for me to see Mike hear it from people. . . . He had a hard time with it, to be honest.”

Those who know Isabella say that viewers grossly misunderstood the dynamic of the scene. Isabella and Carroll are friends, and Jerseyites like Isabella have developed peculiar customs for how to treat their friends. “I can understand his sarcasm and bravado,” says Blais, a Long Island native. “When you love someone, you give them a hard time sometimes.”

Misunderstood or not, Isabella’s “Top Chef” appearances established a pattern: The negative was often difficult to separate from the positive. Even as he started to change public opinion during “All-Stars,” Isabella continued to find himself in the middle of kitchen controversies.

Blais and others initially stewed over the fact that Isabella had nicked the concept for a chicken “oyster” dish from Blais’s recipe book. (Blais today: If that’s stealing, “I’m guilty of stealing a thousand things.”) Later, competitor Marcel Vigneron accused Isabella of purposely botching a monkfish dish during a team challenge to force Vigneron out of the competition. (Isabella says Vigneron is a “spoiled brat.”) And in the penultimate “All-Stars” episode, some hard-core online followers speculated that Colicchio had persuaded guest judge Wolfgang Puck to change his vote and keep Isabella around for the finale.

Isabella, incidentally, remains convinced that he won the “All-Stars” finale over Blais. He swears that Blais thought the same thing after the final challenge in the Bahamas, too. (Blais counters: He never tasted Isabella’s food, so he couldn’t have made a call, but says he “was prepared to lose.”) Regardless, Isabella says he is sort of relieved he didn’t win: “I think it would have messed with my opening a bit.”

The fact is, Graffiato is already behind schedule. Isabella thought his restaurant would open in early spring, but it is only now ready to swing its doors wide at 5 p.m. Thursday. Last week he was working with sous-chef Elliot Drew and executive sous-chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley to train the cooks and execute the small plates, pastas and pizzas on Isabella’s concise menu.

Isabella refuses to call Graffiato an Italian restaurant. He doesn’t even want his servers to use the term “antipasti” when describing his collection of vegetable-driven appetizers, such as the “blistered sweet peppers” and “honey-glazed cipollini.” It might seem counterintuitive, especially with such dishes as hand-cut spaghetti with olive-oil-poached cherry tomatoes on the menu, until you spot ingredients such as mint (in the romaine salad), coriander yogurt (served with pork ribs) and dates (paired with roasted baby carrots). Isabella has created a hybrid beast, a menu that pulls together his Italian American past with his experiences in Mediterranean cooking. Even the small plates scream Zaytinya.

“I don’t feel that stuff is really Italian,” he says. “I take Italian dishes and twist them up a little bit.”

But then there’s a dish in the pasta section. It’s roasted potato gnocchi with braised pork-shank ragu and burrata. It’s his ode to Grandma, the very dish that made the bulletproof Colicchio suddenly seem as vulnerable as a child.

“A lot of people had asked me to do that dish,” Isabella says, and he thinks they won’t be disappointed. He produced a batch last week, and despite some cheffy ingredients in it, Mike Isabella came away with one distinct impression:

It tasted like Grandma’s red gravy.

RECIPE

Olive-Oil-Poached Cherry Tomato Sauce

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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