If you’ve watched Top Chef, then you probably know a few things about Isabella.
First, he’s from New Jersey; the little town of Little Ferry in Bergen County, to be exact, a place teeming with people of Italian heritage. Little Ferry’s only prior culinary claim to fame is as the original home of Rosie’s Diner, famous for its role in Bounty paper towel commercials of the 1970s. A long-suffering waitress would use the “quicker picker upper” to clean up after her slovenly clientele. The diner has since been moved to Michigan. Little Ferry is where little Mike first learned to roll meatballs with his grandmother, which is ultimately the foundation for the first restaurant of his own design, Graffiato.
Second, Isabella used to work for Mr. D.C. Food Scene himself, José Andrés, who famously popularized Spanish tapas here in the 1990s and today runs seven high-end local eateries. For three and a half years, Isabella toiled at Andrés’ Zaytinya, a perfect spot for someone working his way up the old-fashioned way: Work in the shadow of someone else until you have the confidence—and the savings—to go out on your own. Isabella’s career arc famously went in a different direction, but Andrés’ tutelage guaranteed a few things: Isabella can crank out small plates with the best of ’em. He has at least some sense of what it takes to turn a single restaurant into a multi-million-dollar corporation. And his ego is off the charts.
You get a sense of that latter point the more Isabella gabs about his vision for Bandolero. He believes you will soon come to recognize the signature touches of his establishments the same way people recognize them in Andrés’ joints, a tendency parodied in the “Shit People in D.C. Say” viral video that depicts locals asking, “Is this a José Andrés restaurant?” Of course, in Isabella’s ideal D.C. food world, the locals are dropping his name—not his former employer’s.
“I want you to walk into Bandolero and be, like, ‘Mike did it again,’” Isabella says. “From the design to the music to the food to the presentation to the flavor–that’s what I want. I want people to know that this is a Mike Isabella concept.”
What is a Mike Isabella concept? Well, that’s a little hard to define at the moment. The guy only has one restaurant, after all, with nothing to compare it to. If you’ve dined at Graffiato, you might know a little about his gustatory flourishes—putting Thai basil in his spaghetti and fried calamari on his pizza, for instance. And there’s that defining moment from Top Chef All-Stars when the fast-talking, spiky-haired dude with the forearm tattoos made the brazen decision to put pepperoni in a blender. You may have tried that luscious pepperoni sauce for yourself at Graffiato. Isabella appears tired of talking about it.
Visitors to Bandolero may also notice some common elements: prosecco on tap, for instance, as well as the same button-up gray coats, fashionably reminiscent of the Dickie’s brand of blue-collar workman apparel, that Isabella’s cooks wear in place of the usual chef whites. As keen on promoting himself as he is on avoiding mariachi music, Isabella wears his Graffiato shirt constantly, even when dining at other restaurants. Bandolero will also have the same dimly lit ambiance: Isabella says he’s going for a sort of “Day of the Dead” theme, with cemetery gates hanging from the ceiling, skulls lining the staircase, dusty wood floors, candlelight. “I wanted to go totally opposite of all these damn colorful restaurants out here,” he says during a tour of the yet-unfinished restaurant.
How Isabella landed his second restaurant deal so quickly is a sort of fairytale scenario—at least that’s how he tells it. The story goes that Isabella and his wife were walking to their favorite tattoo parlor in Georgetown when they passed building owner Jonathan Umbel standing outside along M Street NW. His restaurant space, formerly occupied by the popular seafood spot Hook, caught fire last summer and has been shuttered ever since. Isabella had met Umbel before at the annual Capital Food Fight. (“He’s hard to miss with all those tattoos,” Umbel says.) They got to talking.
“He’s like, ‘Are you opening up more restaurants?’” Isabella says. “I said, ‘I’d love to. But, you know, right now, I’ve been really busy. I haven’t really thought about it. We’ve only been open a couple months.’ He’s like, ‘Come in, let me show you my space.’ I’m like, ‘Sure.’”
Not long after that, the pair had struck a deal.
“At the time, we were talking to a lot of really notable, more national people about the space,” Umbel says. “And when it really boiled down to it, there was no way I could create the same energy going in a different direction than I could with him.” Umbel offers his own pet theory about Isabella’s mass appeal: “The edgy part of Mike is what’s driving it.”
You can’t blame Umbel for latching on to Starship Isabella. Lately, it seems like everybody wants to team up with the guy. In November, D.C.’s new online reservation site, CityEats, announced an exclusive partnership with Isabella, making it the only place in cyberspace to reserve a table at the celebrity chef’s tough-to-book Graffiato. “From a brand perspective, he represents a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs and that’s something that we wanted to be associated with as the newcomer on the block,” says CityEats President Sameer Deen.
Not lot ago, a restaurateur would need to have some very concrete things—like, say, a few years of proven profits and reliability—before he had landlords and online entrepreneurs banging on the door. But in the TV chef age, the timetable has changed.
“The phenomenon of Top Chef is amazing because it really allows you as a chef to do things you normally would not do, take a lot more risks, because you have the marketing, the following and the brand,” says Spike Mendelsohn, Isabella’s friend and fellow alumnus of the show. (Mendelsohn is close to opening his third restaurant in the comparatively leisurely span of four years.) “You know, you take some risks that maybe, if the show didn’t exist, you’d be like, ‘I’m not going to take that risk.’”
Still, there are some other reasons why Isabella—of all the chefs in D.C., even of all the TV alums cooking here—is moving into his particular position. Charisma is part of it. At times, Isabella comes off cocky and brash; other times, he seems light-hearted, goofy and even a little self-deprecating. You probably hated the guy the first time you saw him on Top Chef. By the end of Top Chef All-Stars, he was the one you sort of hated to love.
But at this surreal moment in economic history, Isabella’s populist approach to pricey dining also explains his popularity. Less preachy than José Andrés, more immediately likeable than molecular gastronomer R.J. Cooper, and less prohibitively hip than Erik Bruner-Yang, the man at the end of Toki Underground’s hour-long line, Isabella’s persona, so noxious during his first TV season, is downright accessible. For a restaurant with such tremendous hype, Graffiato is surprisingly low on pretension. The vibe, while loud and busy, is casual: There are expense-account lobbyist types, sure, but also people in Caps jerseys. You can grab a quick bite to eat for under $20 if you budget right, but also order a varietal of wine that costs $62 per glass.
In a town balancing unprecedented wealth in an era of austerity, Graffiato the concept—like Isabella the persona—just works.