Young and Hungry

Gravy Trained: Mike Isabella’s Jersey-Italian Graffiato Is Neither Jersey Nor Italian. Discuss.

Gravy Trained: Mike Isabella's Jersey-Italian Graffiato Is Neither Jersey Nor Italian. Discuss.

Chef Mike Isabella likes to play up his New Jersey roots—at least on TV. During season six of Top Chef, Isabella’s breakout performance to the nation, the former Zaytinya toque showcased his flair for Italian cooking, garnished with frequent nods to the Garden State.

“When people would ask, ‘What part of Italy is your food from?’ I would say, ‘New Jersey,’” says Isabella, 36, a native of Little Ferry in the state’s northern part.

It became a sort of running gag on the show’s set in Las Vegas, with fellow chef-testants asking him, “Is that a Jersey pasta? Is that a Jersey dumpling?” The back and forth helped to establish Isabella’s on-camera persona as “Jersey Mike.”

Isabella further injects his Jersey pride into the title of his forthcoming book with co-writer Carol Blymire, Flavors from a Jersey Italian, combining stories and recipes from a childhood spent romping around boardwalk pizzerias and gobbling up his grandma’s “gravy.”(For the benefit of the non-Jersey crowd, that’s tomato sauce cooked with meat.)

Yet, when this proud Jersey-Italian chef opened his very own eatery in D.C. earlier this summer, Isabella suddenly dropped the shtick. Oh, sure, you’ll find traces of Garden State nostalgia on the menu at Isabella’s Chinatown restaurant Graffiato. The most obvious example is the “Jersey Shore” pizza, a playful send-up of Friday-night boardwalk fare, incorporating fried calamari as a topping and not-so-subtly referencing a popular reality TV show in its title.

But the traditional elements of Jersey-style Italian eats are missing. Even the meathead cast members of Jersey Shore would notice the staples of their Sunday dinners so glaringly absent at Graffiato: No chicken parm. No veal marsala. And no gravy to speak of. Instead, you find bone marrow and roasted cauliflower—stuff you’d never see at, say, Joe Palombo’s Mirabella Cafe.

Gravy Trained: Mike Isabella's Jersey-Italian Graffiato Is Neither Jersey Nor Italian. Discuss.

As a Jersey gal myself, I find Isabella’s decision to disregard his home state’s culinary heritage at Graffiato rather disheartening. While I’m not Italian, I grew up in the Italian-dominated town of Cherry Hill, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb where delis and red-sauce restaurants occupy every strip mall. These are often family-run businesses, with brothers and uncles cooking in back and fathers and daughters running the front of the house. It’s homey and friendly, and the predominant BYOB policies only enhance the experience.

Hailing from New Jersey can be a dubious descriptor these days, what with the disgraceful depictions on reality TV. Beyond Jersey Shore, there’s also Jerseylicious and The Real Housewives of New Jersey. While the state’s prevalence in pop culture suggests a fashionable status, the portrayals on screen seem quite the opposite. I, for one, embrace a more glowing image of my home state. When I think of New Jersey, I don’t see big hair, fake tans, and faker tits; I see heaping portions of our tasty Italian food.

Upon moving to D.C. in 1999, I couldn’t believe the lack of casual Italian restaurants. Only after leaving my home state did I realize how much I truly adored that particular brand of cuisine. Eventually, I settled on Dupont Italian Kitchen for my pasta cravings, succumbing regularly to its impeccably creamy fettuccine Alfredo.

Gravy Trained: Mike Isabella's Jersey-Italian Graffiato Is Neither Jersey Nor Italian. Discuss.

Shortly before Graffiato’s debut, I found renewed hope in knowing that D.C.’s best known Jersey-Italian chef would be opening his very own pizza and pasta emporium. Then I saw the menu. And my heart sank. There was no fettuccine Alfredo. There was no fettuccine, period.

After years of toiling under José Andrés at Zaytinya, where he lacked ultimate control of the menu—which “drove me up the wall,” he says—Isabella finally had the freedom to showcase Jersey-Italian flavors in all their glory. Instead, he forged a new path, unveiling a mishmash of artisanal pizzas and small plates, neither of which the District is particularly lacking.

How could an Italian guy seemingly bursting with Jersey pride not open a Jersey-Italian restaurant?

“It’s not my style,” Isabella stresses to me when I hound him about the glaring Jersey gap on his menu. “Flavors are a very important part for me, [but] it’s not about doing something that everyone does.”

For that, Isabella suggests Carmine’s, the sprawling family-style Italian eatery, located just around the corner from Graffiato along 7th Street NW. “You could say Carmine’s is the closest thing to that Jersey Italian,” he says. “It is factory, but the style of it with fried calamari, spaghetti and red sauce, mussels Diablo, all those classics...They just do it in a high volume.”

Carmine’s executive chef Terry Natas agrees with Isabella’s Jersey-centric assessment of his own restaurant: “I think Carmine’s really hits home for that. It’s very similar to that Northeast American Italian cooking.” Natas would know. He started cooking (and washing dishes) at restaurants on the Atlantic City boardwalk at 14. He cooked for a few casinos as well, and eventually helped open A.C.’s branch of Carmine’s before moving on to Washington’s outpost, which opened a year ago.

Gravy Trained: Mike Isabella's Jersey-Italian Graffiato Is Neither Jersey Nor Italian. Discuss.

Natas has dined at Graffiato, calling the “Jersey Shore” pizza delicious. But he realizes that the place doesn’t quite fit into the Carmine’s category. “It’s a great play on a lot of traditional Northeastern [American] Italian dishes,” he says.

And that’s just how Isabella wants it to be: “I always try to take classics…but just kind of put my touches on it so, you know, it’s Mike Isabella on a plate.”

Not only is Graffiato not a Jersey-Italian restaurant, it’s not even Italian, Isabella says—it’s more like Italian-inspired. “Jersey Italian food is a fun place, fun food, simple food, and it’s good,” he says. Isabella’s restaurant, meanwhile, is anything but simple. “At Graffiato,” he explains, “it’s a much cleaner way of eating it.”

Consider Isabella’s famous pepperoni sauce, which earned him high praise on the show Top Chef All-Stars and later incited a Twitter campaign to encourage Isabella to add it to the menu at Graffiato. His family wouldn’t recognize the dish. “Growing up as a kid, I don’t think my grandmother, mother or anyone else would take pepperoni, cook it, puree it in a blender and put it on a plate,” he says.

Gravy Trained: Mike Isabella's Jersey-Italian Graffiato Is Neither Jersey Nor Italian. Discuss.

For now, it seems, Isabella is saving most of his traditional Jersey stuff for the book. “It’s gonna start off with a lot of classic family recipes that I grew up with,” he says. “That’s how I learned the foundations of cooking: from the red sauce, from the gravy, from the bolognese, from the ragù, from the gnocchis, the pastas, all those things. It’s gonna evolve. It watches Mike Isabella grow.”

So the guy has outgrown the quaint red-sauce scene. I get it. But, as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of New Jersey, but you can’t take New Jersey out of the boy.

At one point, Isabella attempts to better explain Graffiato’s Jersey gap as an issue tied to local sourcing. “There’s Italian food in America, you know, and there’s California Italian,” he says. “Why is it Californian Italian? It’s because they use all the local ingredients.”

Then he ticks off his supply sources: ham from Virginia, corn from Maryland, and tomatoes from…New Jersey!

At least some part of the Garden State gets its due at Graffiato.

“I’ve always represented Jersey, you know,” Isabella says.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Graffiato, 707 6th St. NW, (202) 289-3600

Carmine’s, 425 7th St. NW, (202) 737-7770

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • Anonymous

    You pan the restaurant for not being what you wanted it to be, but don't give any attention to whether or not it's any good at what it's actually trying to be? Kind of a selfish review. If I wished Komi was a soul-food restaurant instead of what it is, would that make it a bad restaurant? This article is a really odd way to look at Graffiato. Especially since the proprietor himself doesn't even proclaim it to be Italian.

  • http://twitter.com/monkeyrotica monkeyrotica

    I've never heard Graffiato being sold as a "Jersey Italian restaurant" any more than I've heard Zatinya pitched as a "Greek diner." So the premise of the article seems a bit faulty. Anyway, this is the standard transplant complaint about any town: you can't get [x] here like you can back at home. It's like the people who move to Naples and complain about the lousy Chinese-American carryout food. They just don't make it like they do in Barstow.

  • NJ transplant

    Jersey-Italian? Never heard that one before.

  • Jason

    Seriously ridiculous and pointless review of a restaurant. Should look into food blogs where this self therapeutic overly colorful pointless droning on, Sex In The City wannabe bla passes as useful content. Oh wait, is this a blog or a paper?

  • LR

    What is going on with y'all? This is a perfectly informative and slightly breezy feature (nothing 'review' about it, but it doesn't claim that name). I for one enjoyed it.

  • Penn Quarter

    This "review" is ridiculous. Spending an entire article criticizing a restaurant for what you want it to serve, rather than critiquing the actual food? Next time you want fettuccine alfredo, go to Olive Garden and leave Graffiato to the patrons that can actually appreciate the restaurant and its delicious food.

  • Jersey Food Snob

    This is truly one of the silliest restaurant reviews I've read in a long time. I look forward to this author's next review where she'll probably pan a jewish deli for not selling ham, and Asia Nine for not selling chicken fajitas.

  • Penn Quarter Urbaniste

    A fun article, but it also does Mike a disservice as people are reading it as a review. Has Ms. Gans tried Graffiato's agnolotti -- to die for -- or his spagetti with the best red sauce I have ever had? It would have been a better article if she had acknowledged that Graffiato is a fun place to be, which may be the New Jersey roots coming through, with cuisine worthy of Top Chef celebrity.

  • rdb24

    Two weeks ago Graffiato served an epic meal. Unfortunately, the entire experience registered somewhere between malpractice and gross apathy.

    Halfway through a decent meal of small Italian plates, we were delivered a saucy dish of roasted cauliflower. Our waitress chirped with enthusiasm while we dug into the mixed plates of cured pork, raw oysters and wood-oven roasted octopus. To my horror, I spat out a soiled band aid. Silence followed, then managerial melt down. I was the unlucky patron to chew a kitchen worker's soiled band-aid buried inside the pecorino cauliflower. As if this wasn't bad enough (and it was) the management went on to mumble, offer me a shot "to numb the pain" and send out unordered dishes hyped by the management as 'a generous apology'. The manager proceeded to offer our table help with future reservations (presumptuous to say the least!) and charged us for the meal minus the soiled dish.

    This is undoubtedly the most disgusting, avoidable and egregious mistake I've come across at any type of dining establishment. That it happened in a restaurant of Graffiato's reputation/price point is truly unacceptable. I offered to stay quiet about the entire evening if the management would agree to have suspected kitchen workers tested for hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. They didn't even have the courtesy to respond to my email.

    Chef/Owner Mike Isabella and his management ought to focus a little less on the hype surrounding their pepperoni sauce and a lot more on what it means to host the public. Buyer beware.

  • James Horn

    As the General Manager of Graffiato, I can assure everyone that we have communicated with this guest (rdb24) via e-mail and have phoned him to offer resolution in response to his experience. We sincerely regret the circumstances that caused concern and led to a poor experience. Food safety and the health and well-being of our guests is a top priority at Graffiato. We exercise high standards of preparation, safety, and cleanliness at all times and are dedicated to providing a delicious and enjoyable experience for every guest, every time.

    James Horn
    General Manager/Partner
    Graffiato

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