After proving his chops on two seasons of “Top Chef,” former Zaytinya chef Mike Isabella has conquered a real-world quickfire challenge: getting his first restaurant off the ground. Graffiato opened in June with all the hype of a season finale, and the Bravo star is working overtime to live up to the considerable expectations. “I work best under pressure, and this is the biggest time of my life,” he says. “My goal has always been to be a restaurateur, and this is the first step.”

“I never thought I’d open an Italian restaurant when I first started at Zaytinya,” admits the New Jersey native. “But once I got older, got married and began thinking about my family, I found that I wanted to be able to bring my kids to a place that reminded me of childhood.” Accordingly, the Penn Quarter eatery showcases cuisine inspired by both Italy and the Garden State’s seaside boardwalk scene.

A wide-ranging variety of small plates vie for your attention — cheese, charcuterie, veggies and pasta — but order the chicken thighs piled in Isabella’s already famous pepperoni sauce if you want to taste a reality television triumph. Soak up the last drops with the bread basket ($5), which brims with polenta bread, focaccia and flatbread, and is accompanied by creamy ricotta and an olive oil jam that melts as soon as it touches your lips. Keep up the carb loading by choosing from eight signature pizzas, including the rich Countryman ($18), which is spread with black truffle paste, covered with fontina cheese and finished off with an over-easy duck egg. If Isabella is working, order the Trust Your Pizzaiolo (price varies) and he’ll create a one-of-a-kind pie for you. Go off-menu for dessert and order the secret zeppoles (fried dough balls), which are stuffed with fluffy ricotta cheese, coated in strawberry sugar and served with a chocolate-balsamic dipping sauce.

The beverage selection is just as carefully curated as the dinner menu. There are more than 20 canned, bottled and draft beers ($7 each). The craft cocktails are a treat, especially the Gin & Juice Tonic ($9), which flips the favorite by gassing up Bluecoat gin to create the fizz and then dropping in lime-quinine ice cubes for the tonic flavor. If you’re in a celebratory mood, toast with a glass of on-tap sparkling Montelvini Prosecco ($7).

An alt-rock soundtrack bounces off the brick walls and concrete floors of this energetic eatery, but the music is often drowned out by the sounds of “Top Chef” fans clamoring to get a taste of Isabella’s Bravo-worthy cuisine.

» 707 6th St. NW; 202-289-3600,

Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Photo by Greg Powers