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In case you’ve missed the non-stop buzz, Bandolero opens in Georgetown tonight at 4 p.m. On the menu, you’ll find chef Mike Isabella‘s take on tacos, empanadas, tostadas, and other Mexican fare.
But the last time he was actually in Mexico? A decade ago. For that matter, the Graffiato chef has never been to Italy, either. That’s one of the reasons he calls his food “Mexican-inspired” and “Italian-inspired.”
“This is not Mexican food,” Isabella tells Y&H. “This is modern Mexican. I take classics, and I try to reinvent them.”
Though it’s been years since Isabella headed south of the border, he’s done his homework in other ways: He worked for a yearat contemporary Mexican restaurant El Vez in Philadelphia, then run by Jose Garces. He’s also eaten his way through Mexican restaurants in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Texas, and elsewhere. “I’ve just been around it. I just kind of know it, and I enjoy eating it,” Isabella says.
As for Italy, Isabella points out that he was raised in an Italian-American community in New Jersey, and his grandma—an inspiration in his cooking—immigrated from Italy. Pasta and red sauce is what he grew up eating. When people ask Isabella what region of Italy his menu at Graffiato represents, he tells them “New Jersey.”
Isabella is hardly the only chef never to have been to the native country of his cuisine, but it seems increasingly popular for chefs and restaurateurs to take international “research trips” before opening a restaurant. For example, Proof’s Haidar Karoum went to Spain before opening Estadio, and Komi’s Johnny Monis traveled to Thailand before opening Little Serow.
Of course, Isabella says he’d like to visit Mexico and Italy: “I will go. I’ve just been really busy.”
Photo by Jessica Sidman