Chef Mike Isabella likes to play up his New Jersey roots—at least on TV. During season six of Top Chef, Isabella’s breakout performance to the nation, the former Zaytinya toque showcased his flair for Italian cooking, garnished with frequent nods to the Garden State.
“When people would ask, ‘What part of Italy is your food from?’ I would say, ‘New Jersey,’” says Isabella, 36, a native of Little Ferry in the state’s northern part.
It became a sort of running gag on the show’s set in Las Vegas, with fellow chef-testants asking him, “Is that a Jersey pasta? Is that a Jersey dumpling?” The back and forth helped to establish Isabella’s on-camera persona as “Jersey Mike.”
Isabella further injects his Jersey pride into the title of his forthcoming book with co-writer Carol Blymire, Flavors from a Jersey Italian, combining stories and recipes from a childhood spent romping around boardwalk pizzerias and gobbling up his grandma’s “gravy.”(For the benefit of the non-Jersey crowd, that’s tomato sauce cooked with meat.)
Yet, when this proud Jersey-Italian chef opened his very own eatery in D.C. earlier this summer, Isabella suddenly dropped the shtick. Oh, sure, you’ll find traces of Garden State nostalgia on the menu at Isabella’s Chinatown restaurant Graffiato. The most obvious example is the “Jersey Shore” pizza, a playful send-up of Friday-night boardwalk fare, incorporating fried calamari as a topping and not-so-subtly referencing a popular reality TV show in its title.
But the traditional elements of Jersey-style Italian eats are missing. Even the meathead cast members of Jersey Shore would notice the staples of their Sunday dinners so glaringly absent at Graffiato: No chicken parm. No veal marsala. And no gravy to speak of. Instead, you find bone marrow and roasted cauliflower—stuff you’d never see at, say, Joe Palombo’s Mirabella Cafe.
As a Jersey gal myself, I find Isabella’s decision to disregard his home state’s culinary heritage at Graffiato rather disheartening. While I’m not Italian, I grew up in the Italian-dominated town of Cherry Hill, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb where delis and red-sauce restaurants occupy every strip mall. These are often family-run businesses, with brothers and uncles cooking in back and fathers and daughters running the front of the house. It’s homey and friendly, and the predominant BYOB policies only enhance the experience.
Hailing from New Jersey can be a dubious descriptor these days, what with the disgraceful depictions on reality TV. Beyond Jersey Shore, there’s also Jerseylicious and The Real Housewives of New Jersey. While the state’s prevalence in pop culture suggests a fashionable status, the portrayals on screen seem quite the opposite. I, for one, embrace a more glowing image of my home state. When I think of New Jersey, I don’t see big hair, fake tans, and faker tits; I see heaping portions of our tasty Italian food.
Upon moving to D.C. in 1999, I couldn’t believe the lack of casual Italian restaurants. Only after leaving my home state did I realize how much I truly adored that particular brand of cuisine. Eventually, I settled on Dupont Italian Kitchen for my pasta cravings, succumbing regularly to its impeccably creamy fettuccine Alfredo.
Shortly before Graffiato’s debut, I found renewed hope in knowing that D.C.’s best known Jersey-Italian chef would be opening his very own pizza and pasta emporium. Then I saw the menu. And my heart sank. There was no fettuccine Alfredo. There was no fettuccine, period.
After years of toiling under José Andrés at Zaytinya, where he lacked ultimate control of the menu—which “drove me up the wall,” he says—Isabella finally had the freedom to showcase Jersey-Italian flavors in all their glory. Instead, he forged a new path, unveiling a mishmash of artisanal pizzas and small plates, neither of which the District is particularly lacking.
How could an Italian guy seemingly bursting with Jersey pride not open a Jersey-Italian restaurant?
“It’s not my style,” Isabella stresses to me when I hound him about the glaring Jersey gap on his menu. “Flavors are a very important part for me, [but] it’s not about doing something that everyone does.”
For that, Isabella suggests Carmine’s, the sprawling family-style Italian eatery, located just around the corner from Graffiato along 7th Street NW. “You could say Carmine’s is the closest thing to that Jersey Italian,” he says. “It is factory, but the style of it with fried calamari, spaghetti and red sauce, mussels Diablo, all those classics…They just do it in a high volume.”
Carmine’s executive chef Terry Natas agrees with Isabella’s Jersey-centric assessment of his own restaurant: “I think Carmine’s really hits home for that. It’s very similar to that Northeast American Italian cooking.” Natas would know. He started cooking (and washing dishes) at restaurants on the Atlantic City boardwalk at 14. He cooked for a few casinos as well, and eventually helped open A.C.’s branch of Carmine’s before moving on to Washington’s outpost, which opened a year ago.
Natas has dined at Graffiato, calling the “Jersey Shore” pizza delicious. But he realizes that the place doesn’t quite fit into the Carmine’s category. “It’s a great play on a lot of traditional Northeastern [American] Italian dishes,” he says.
And that’s just how Isabella wants it to be: “I always try to take classics…but just kind of put my touches on it so, you know, it’s Mike Isabella on a plate.”
Not only is Graffiato not a Jersey-Italian restaurant, it’s not even Italian, Isabella says—it’s more like Italian-inspired. “Jersey Italian food is a fun place, fun food, simple food, and it’s good,” he says. Isabella’s restaurant, meanwhile, is anything but simple. “At Graffiato,” he explains, “it’s a much cleaner way of eating it.”
Consider Isabella’s famous pepperoni sauce, which earned him high praise on the show Top Chef All-Stars and later incited a Twitter campaign to encourage Isabella to add it to the menu at Graffiato. His family wouldn’t recognize the dish. “Growing up as a kid, I don’t think my grandmother, mother or anyone else would take pepperoni, cook it, puree it in a blender and put it on a plate,” he says.
For now, it seems, Isabella is saving most of his traditional Jersey stuff for the book. “It’s gonna start off with a lot of classic family recipes that I grew up with,” he says. “That’s how I learned the foundations of cooking: from the red sauce, from the gravy, from the bolognese, from the ragù, from the gnocchis, the pastas, all those things. It’s gonna evolve. It watches Mike Isabella grow.”
So the guy has outgrown the quaint red-sauce scene. I get it. But, as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of New Jersey, but you can’t take New Jersey out of the boy.
At one point, Isabella attempts to better explain Graffiato’s Jersey gap as an issue tied to local sourcing. “There’s Italian food in America, you know, and there’s California Italian,” he says. “Why is it Californian Italian? It’s because they use all the local ingredients.”
Then he ticks off his supply sources: ham from Virginia, corn from Maryland, and tomatoes from…New Jersey!
At least some part of the Garden State gets its due at Graffiato.
“I’ve always represented Jersey, you know,” Isabella says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Graffiato, 707 6th St. NW, (202) 289-3600
Carmine’s, 425 7th St. NW, (202) 737-7770
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