Mike Isabella's Fast Cooking The Top Chef star and Graffiato founder could soon have four D.C. restaurants. Is his empire expanding too soon?

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Even in the high-speed economy of Top Chef toques, Isabella is something of an outlier. It was a full year between the time that Mendelsohn opened his first place in D.C., Good Stuff Eatery, and the opening of his second, We The Pizza, right next door. It’s taken another two years (and counting) for Mendelsohn to set up shop somewhere outside the 300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. His second Good Stuff Eatery opens in Crystal City this spring. Similarly, it took Top Chefer Harold Dieterle some three years between opening his first and second spots in New York.

“I even mentioned to him, ‘Hey, maybe you just want to hang back a bit, feel it out,” says Mendelsohn. “But, Mike’s a professional and he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

With Bandolero, Isabella is dramatically raising the stakes for his moderately sized management team. The new place will be a much bigger restaurant (seating almost 180, compared to 130 at Graffiato) with a larger kitchen and higher rent. His workforce will have more than doubled. Some of his top people, the ones who helped make Graffiato a success, including his original general manager, James Horn, will be moving over to the new place.

Isabella says he has a plan for how to make up for the lost talent at Graffiato. All the current chefs are staying put. He’s bringing in a former colleague, Tony Starr, formerly at Zaytinya, to head up the new kitchen. Meanwhile, he’s hired another former Zaytinya colleague, Tiffiny Dunn, as the new GM at Graffiato. “I feel like I have the right people around me to do it,” he says. “And I’m going to put them in successful positions and they’re going to help me be successful.”

Isabella has also purchased a scooter.


In recent weeks, the machine has been parked on the sidewalk outside Graffiato. But the plan is that, once Bandolero gets going, the boss will be able to use the two-wheeler to weave in and out of traffic as he darts between his two establishments. Recently, Isabella bought a second scooter, a souped-up custom-built Honda Ruckus emblazoned with the Graffiato logo. “I took it on I-395,” he says. “I had it going 60 miles per hour no problem. I was just blowing past cars. My helmet was floating above my head.” (Alas, the Ruckus is currently in the shop.)

“I call Mike’s bike ‘the fist pump,’” says Mendelsohn, who also bought a scooter from the same custom shop in Atlanta. “It’s very Jersey shore. It’s got rims, it’s purple, it’s pimped out.” Mendelsohn suggests the future is “endless” for Isabella.

Talk to former Top Chef contestants long enough and you start to get the sense that they believe the show has prepared them to handle whatever wicked curveballs fate might throw at them down the road.

Isabella is the same way: “When we opened Graffiato, people were like, ‘Are you worried about Fabio Trabbochi opening up a casual Italian restaurant down the block from you when you’re opening up a casual Italian restaurant? And, ‘are you worried about that pizzeria that’s going up at F Street called Fuel?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not worried about anybody or anything.’ It’s the same mentality as when you’re on Top Chef and everyone gets a potato and you have 10 chefs there and everyone’s dish is totally different. It’s same thing. I’m going to do something that’s totally different than what everyone else does.”

Photo Slideshow: Preview of Bandolero

Our Readers Say

A shame that Isabella's not going to Chicago. The city's got some of the best Mexican food in the country! A walk down 26th on the South side would give Isabella the flavor he seeks AND the proper musical influence.

Only like 20 songs?!? Isabella needs more Latino friends. It's called "Rock en Español." Guys like Juanes sound basically like the Rolling Stones but in Spanish. Satelite radio stations all have a spanish rock station, and ALL of it sounds like either classic rock, 80s rock or ska.
I really dislike Graffiato (overpriced, way too loud), but anyone who refuses to serve tableside guacamole gets bonus points in my book. It's just guacamole. I don't need to see it made, seriously. It's a waste of time and a good server.
You would think one trip to Mexico City would Mike a some ideals. Mexican food in the states is very different from what is actually served in Mexico
Props to this guy for getting investors. For every one of him there are 4 more yet unnoticed to take his place.
How about a trip to Puebla or Oaxaca or even Mexico, DF, if he wants to know what Mexican food is like. Even better, travel between these cities by bus and eat near the bus stations.

I don't want New Jersey style fake Mexican any more than I want yet another Salvadorean interpretation of comida tipica mexicana.

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