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With just one week to go until the debut of his much anticipated new Penn Quarter restaurant, Graffiato, Mike Isabella was feeling a little nervous about the pizza. “Because when we get busy, and you have 120 seats, people are going to order pizza,” he says.

Like many Italian-American chefs, Isabella considers pie-making an art. And, amid the hustle of final taste tests and other preparations for his two-story, 5,000-square-foot Italian-style bistro last Wednesday, the former Top Chef All-Stars runner-up still wasn’t perfectly pleased with his staff’s pizza-making process.  “If this was just a pizza place, I could be there [at the oven] all day,” he says.

Of course, Graffiato, opening Thursday, June 23, will offer a lot more than just pies. The two-sided oven will also see many other dishes (king crab legs, for example). The menu further features seasonal vegetable dishes and locally procured meats and cheeses.

At least until midnight when the kitchen closes. The pizza bar, however, stays open until 2 a.m., which might be the best time to order one because of the staff’s full concentration on the pies.

In the few short days until opening, the pizza wasn’t the only thing needing some tweaks.

“There’s not enough salt,” Isabella says flatly; his gloved hands in a bowl with steaming hot water as he’s battles with mozzarella. The water-to-salt ratio was still not right, leaving the stretched-out whey tasting rather mild.

“I’m getting pulled in all directions,” Isabella says.

Hey, no one said opening a restaurant would be easy. Still, he’s glad it’s his own.

Before Graffiato, Isabella helmed Mediterranean powerhouse Zaytinya. As part of José Andrés ThinkFoodGroup, he lacked ultimate control of the restaurant’s menu, which “drove me up the wall,” he says. Suffice to say, he’s happy to finally be the guy in charge: “It’s great.”

Herewith, a peek at the final preparations:

Creating agnolotti.

Testing agnolotti.

Isabella and his father-in-law built the tables.

Instead of importing items from Italy, Isabella chooses local meats and vegetables.

Pasta dough comes through the machine.

Concrete floors, randomly speckled with paint, compliment the industrial-chic look.

Sitting at the bar, diners will feel the heat from the wood-fired oven.

Just so everyone knows who’s in charge.

Photos by Stefanie Gans