Mike Isabella cooks in Washington, but his heart is in New Jersey. The two-time “Top Chef” contestant draws heavily on childhood memories and old family recipes in “ Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian: Big Flavors, Small Plates ” (Da Capo, 2012; $35), his first cookbook and the newest addition to his expanding franchise.
His grandmother’s bolognese, his mom’s broiled chicken and his aunt’s pepper rings are in there. So is his now-famous Pepperoni Sauce (somewhat modified since we published it in April 2011), created during “Top Chef All-Stars,” along with recipes reflecting his experience with Greek food. Most are meant to serve four as small plates.
Isabella was executive chef at Jose Andres’s Zaytinya in 2009 when Bravo TV tapped him as a contestant for Season 6 of its popular chef competition. He returned for “All-Stars” in Season 8, on the verge of opening Graffiato in Chinatown. In May, he launched Bandolero, serving Mexican food in Georgetown.
Graffiato-goers will recognize some of the offerings: Smoky octopus, corn agnolotti, broccolini and others have appeared on the menu. Does that translate to food that’s too cheffy? In a few cases, maybe. Not all home cooks will want to stuff a baby squid or wrap shrimp in lardo. Isabella’s assertion that “everybody should roast a whole pig at least once in their lives” will prompt some eyes to roll.
But most recipes are accessible, and many include a simple sauce or side you’ll be tempted to make, even if the main dish it accessorizes doesn’t appeal. Maybe you won’t cook Isabella’s whitebait (fish) fries, but you could find plenty of uses for the Black Mayo that comes with them. Charred Onion Mascarpone, Artichoke Pesto, Harissa Vinaigrette, Coriander Yogurt: All are accompaniments to other dishes but seem versatile enough to dress up many foods.
Compliments to the chef for including storage/use-by directions for many (but not all) of the dishes. It’s a habit more cookbook writers should embrace.