Photo of Mike Isabella by Greg Powers
Photo of Mike Isabella by Greg Powers

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Mike Isabella spent more time carrying a briefcase than a knife kit in 2017, when the restaurateur widened his local empire to include newcomers Arroz, Requin at The Wharf, Kapnos Taverna College Park, and the 41,000-square-foot Isabella Eatery inside Tysons Galleria. The New York Times dubbed him “Washington’s restless restaurateur.”

But before Isabella thought about every detail required to build and staff restaurants across the region, he was in the kitchen. After serving as the executive chef of José Andrés’ Zaytinya for three years, Isabella opened his first restaurant, Graffiato, in 2011. 

Starting in mid-March, Isabella will return to the Italian eatery in Chinatown on a full-time basis as the restaurant’s executive chef. “I’m going to be writing the menus and on the line expediting,” he says. After taking meetings throughout the day at his other Mike Isabella Concepts restaurants, he’ll head to what he calls “his first restaurant, his baby” at least five nights a week. Graffiato will suspend lunch operations as a part of this new chapter, but weekend brunch will live on. 

He is putting his chef coat on again to up the overall quality at Graffiato, which has been uneven over the past couple of years. “I want to get it back to where it was,” Isabella says. “It used to be the hang out for the chefs.” 

He’s planning to shrink the menu and introduce new dishes, which means some diners will say goodbye to their go-to orders like the cauliflower with romesco sauce and potato gnocchi with short rib ragu. “No more pepperoni sauce,” Isabella jokes. He put the savory, salty sauce on the opening menu after it was a hit on “Top Chef All-Stars.” It became the calling card of the restaurant.

Isabella says he’s not trying to elevate Graffiato’s menu to be more high-end, but he will roll out a new tasting menu. It’ll be Italian with flashes of other cuisines such as Japanese and Spanish. Spot prawns could make an appearance. So could hamachi kama (yellowtail collar). He is currently testing recipes at Isabella Eatery and staffing up to be ready for the launch next month.

Getting back into the kitchen has been on Isabella’s mind for five months. He had to get through a rash of openings before he could commit. “I have nothing lined up to open this year, so this is the time to go back to my roots,” he says. If he’s happy with the results down the road, he’ll promote a chef from within or hire new talent to take over the executive chef gig. 

Is this a start of a trend? Do chef-turned-restaurateurs miss life on the line?

“I think I’m the only crazy person with 20 restaurants to do this,” Isabella says.

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