Roasted-potato gnocchi with braised pork shoulder, burrata, and arugula; chef Mike Isabella. Photographs by Kyle GustafsonGlance at the menu at Graffiato, chef Mike Isabella's two-story Italian restaurant set to open Thursday in Penn Quarter, and you'll see his many influences. There are Italian recipes from his grandmother (warm escarole salad with guanciale vinaigrette, a riff on her escarole soup); red-sauce-inspired dishes from his New Jersey childhood (his favorite pizza topped with boardwalk-style fried calamari and cherry-pepper aïoli); Mediterranean touches from his years running the kitchen at nearby Zaytinya (octopus tenderized in vinegar, roasted in the wood oven, and topped with shaved artichokes); and of course, the pepperoni sauce that wowed judge Gail Simmons on Top Chef All Stars. One inspiration that's not immediately apparent? Filmmaker Bob Giraldi's 2000 sleeper hit Dinner Rush, where gangsters take over an upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan.
"I saw the movie as a young chef," Isabella says while seated at one of Graffiato's wooden tables, which he built with his father-in-law. "There's an opening scene where the restaurant looks like such a fun, vibrant place. And I always thought, 'I want a place like that.' "
The mafia (probably) won't hijack Graffiato, but the former printing warehouse space is poised for another kind of mob. The restaurant is already booked for weeks on OpenTable, save for early-bird or night-owl reservations. We've already been hearing about the 24-seat downstairs bar—where a handful of seats are available for walk-in customers—with its cocktail made of Ilegal-brand mezcal and three-spigot Prosecco tap, the first of its kind in Washington. Upstairs, there's a six-seat "ham bar" where diners can order the roasted-potato gnocchi with braised pork shank while watching cooks slice five varieties of cured domestic ham. All the excitement is giving Isabella butterflies: "Some days I want to wake up and cry from happiness, and others I want to cry from nervousness."
Lunch service will start in the coming weeks, and diners can look forward to dinner specials such as branzino tartare with chilis, pickled radishes, and marinated fennel alongside plates of roasted meat for two. One thing you shouldn't expect is a subdued dining experience: The music selection—including the Beatles, ACDC, and Led Zeppelin—will no doubt bounce around the industrial interior, which includes concrete floors and ink-stained brick walls.
"My friend [who made the music playlist] included some slower stuff for lunch service," says Isabella, "but I said, 'No way! We want it upbeat all day long.' "
Graffiato, 707 Sixth St., NW; 202-289-3600; graffiatodc.com. Sunday through Tuesday 5 to 10:30; Wednesday and Thursday 5:30 to 11; Friday and Saturday 5:30 to midnight. The bar is open until midnight Sunday through Tuesday, until 1 AM Wednesday and Thursday, and until 2 AM Friday and Saturday.