If chef Mike Isabella and his team ever decide to get out of the restaurant business, they could have a successful career in event planning. Isabella hosts a good party, even when he’s up against tough competition from football, baseball, and Madonna.
The party Sunday afternoon for his book, Crazy Good Italian, started at 4 PM, while the Redskins were losing at FedEx Field and the Nats were briefly tied at Nats Park. At the Verizon Center, across the street from his restaurant, Graffiato, preparations were underway for a Madonna concert. Isabella was unperturbed. When guests began to arrive, he greeted them with smiles as his staff served gin punch and wine and passed plate after plate of crazy good food, including pizzas and crispy baby goat with polenta.
Isabella has every reason to smile. Tomorrow, his book will get the launch all authors dream of with an appearance on the Today show. He was excited, even though he didn’t know who would be interviewing him and whether he would have to cook. “But I’m sure I’ll have to do some kind of demo,” he said. From there he’s off on a whirlwind tour, stopping in his native New Jersey, then out to California, then back East to Boston, then back West to San Diego.
When the excitement of the book tour settles, his focus will turn to the new Washington restaurant he hopes to open in the spring in the 14th Street Corridor, Kapnos & G. Construction begins in November. He says the menu will be a modern interpretation of Greek cuisine, and he’s been traveling around, getting ideas from other Greek restaurants, most recently in San Francisco. “A lot of what I’m seeing is what I don’t want to do,” he said.
Graffiato was his first DC restaurant—after working as executive chef at Zaytinya—and he seems to feel quite at home there. It represents a style that is both innovative and relaxed, something he’d like to see more of in Washington: “more casual than formal, more bistro than high-end.” That style would also describe his Georgetown restaurant, Bandolero, which he opened in May with another terrific party. Georgetown has been a learning process, he told us, as he tries to figure out the neighborhood and the kind of customers it attracts. “The people who come here to Graffiato don’t want to go to Georgetown, and the people in Georgetown don’t want to come here to Graffiato,” he said. They shouldn’t deny themselves, because both restaurants are worth the voyage. “We are making little changes to the menu at Bandolero,” he said. “We’re figuring it out.”
One thing he didn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out was whether he wanted to appear in Bravo’s new Top Chef spinoff, Life After Top Chef, which premieres on October 3. He talked to the producers, but the show isn’t a cooking competition, he said, and he has the book and restaurant projects that need his attention. “They follow you around with cameras, and that didn’t interest me.” But he will pop up in some of the shows as the cameras follow his fellow Top Chef graduates, who also are friends, including DC’s own Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery and Jen Carroll, who is opening her own restaurant in Philadelphia.
An hour into the party, the room was packed. When a bartender was asked if he’d change the channel from football to the Nationals game, he said, “I could, but my life wouldn’t be safe.” It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because by then the Nats were losing. The drinking and eating was much more uplifting. Madonna was doing her part, too, because the reservation book was filled for the night.
Another local Top Chef star, Bryan Voltaggio, sat the bar with his wife, Jennifer, and sampled the party food, including a serving of grilled scallops with fig jam. Voltaggio, famous for his Volt restaurant in Frederick, Maryland, is about to open his own DC restaurant, Range, at the Chevy Chase Pavilion. Victor Albisu, also opening a new restaurant this fall, Taco Bamba in Falls Church, joined Voltaggio and Isabella at the bar and posed for photos with them.
Other guests at the party were friends, foodies, food writers, and a mix of Graffiato investors and partners who, in addition to Voltaggio, included Soung Wiser, Eric Kessler, Hilda Staples, and a whole team who played various roles in the making of the book: Linda Tipton, Jim Webster, Bill and Cheryl Bunce, Howard Yoon, Carol Blymire, and Stacy Isabella, the chef’s wife, who also had the intriguing title of “cookbook recipe tester.”
A stack of books, already signed by Isabella, sat on a table near the rear of the restaurant, available for guests to take home. When Isabella sat down beside them for a moment, he was dwarfed by the pile. That’s probably how he’ll feel about his book tour in another few weeks.