City Paper is not for tourists
Mike Isabella has always had his own definition of “Italian.”
Since the opening of Graffiato, he’s avoided calling his cuisine authentic or traditional Italian. Instead, when people ask what part of Italy his food comes from, he says, “New Jersey.” After all, Isabella grew up in the Garden State and credits his Italian-American grandmother as one of his biggest cooking inspirations.
But the Jersey Italian label has never totally fit Isabella’s food. Aside from his “Jersey Shore” pizza with fried calamari and cherry-pepper aioli, Isabella’s “modern” small plates at Chinatown’s Graffiato are more Padma than Snooki.
Isabella’s first cookbook also plays fast and loose with labels. Initially, Isabella intended to call it Flavors From a Jersey Italian. Instead, he went with Crazy Good Italian and dedicated a single chapter to “Jersey Shore Style: Everything Fried.”
In the introduction, Isabella provides a disclosure of sorts: “I didn’t want to do traditional Italian food or traditional Mediterranean food. I wanted to do my version of those foods I’ve grown to love so much.” His version, indeed. Forget the Jersey-inspired, traditional, and modern labels. For a book called Crazy Good Italian, there sure are a lot of non-Italian dishes.
Among the recipes in the first 15 pages: pork-fried peanuts, spicy popcorn, and deviled eggs with bacon and cheese. Another 25 pages are dedicated to “My Greek Side,” and several other dishes not in that chapter also have a Greek flair, like the braised leg of lamb with fermented Greek-style couscous and tomato and the roasted cauliflower with pecorino and mint.
It’s not just in these pages that Isabella’s “Italian” increasingly means “Greek.” It’s happening back at Graffiato, too. A recent menu included crispy lamb with yogurt, cucumber, and tapenade and broccolini with spicy pepper relish, walnut, and feta. It makes some sense when you consider that Isabella was formerly chef at Zaytinya and is opening a Greek restaurant called Kapnos next year (or as you should probably start calling it: Greek-inspired). But Italian? These dishes are not.
If Graffiato has proven anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter what you call the food it’s serving. The place is always packed. While I could quibble all day with Isabella’s muddled definition of Italian, I enjoyed the recipes I prepared from the book. The pepperoni sauce, served at Graffiato, is every bit as addictive as the Top Chef judges made it seem in the show’s finale. Meanwhile, Isabella’s sweet-corn agnolotti take longer to make than waiting for a six-top at Graffiato on Friday night, but they’re well worth it.
The book itself is cleanly laid out with easy-to-follow recipes and little personal anecdotes. Some recipes are less accessible than others; squid ink isn’t readily available at most grocery stores, and most people don’t have the space or equipment to roast a whole pig at home.
But the best thing about Crazy Good Italian is that you aren’t limited to the small plates Isabella’s restaurants are known for. You can make heaping portions to share around a table with family and friends—which might be the one of the only things about the book that’s authentically Italian.