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The news is true. Mike Isabella, head chef at Zaytinya and a former Top Chef contestant, is leaving the José Andrés operation to open his own place. He will remain at the Penn Quarter restaurant until August 7 when he’ll start preparing for his own eatery.

“José has given me so much opportunity,” Isabella told me this afternoon during the lunch crunch. “It’s going to be sad [leaving]. But as I said, this is the next chapter of my life.”

The next chapter for Isabella will be his own restaurant in Penn Quarter; he hopes to sign a lease tomorrow for a space. Which will mean he’ll be competing against his former boss at THINKfoodGROUP, right?

“I’m not competing,” Isabella counters. “I’m doing more of my own thing.”

Doing his own thing means channeling more of his Italian ancestry. Isabella’s place will focus on the Venetian version of tapas, the cuisine made famous in the states by Andrés. Cicchettiare, like tapas, small plates designed for snacking in a bar setting.  Isabella wants to do a sort of local, seasonal version of cicchetti, including a wine list heavy on bottles from Virginia.

“I don’t want to do a lot of importing,” the chef says about his pantry ingredients.

Isabella doesn’t want to publicize the name of his place until more of the details are finalized, but he did say that he hopes to open by the end of the year, or early next.

Andrés originally plucked Isabella from Atlanta, where the chef was working at Kyma, a Greek seafood tavern. Isabella has been head chef at Zaytinya since March 2007. He’s also been part of Andrés’ “Delta Force” team, which helped opened The Bazaar in Los Angeles in 2008.

“We’re going to definitely miss him,” says THINKfoodGROUP public relations director Laura Trevino. “He’s been such a fixture.”

Trevino didn’t know if  Andrés had anyone in mind within THINKfoodGROUP for the Zaytinya position. But she said, “We do a lot of promotion from within,” as recently evidenced when THINK installed Richie Brandenberg as head chef at Cafe Atlantico.

Photo courtesy of Top Chef