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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 02/17/2011

Brick by Brick: Mike Isabella on Graffiato's menu

By Tim Carman

This is the second installment in our series following chef Mike Isabella as he plans and builds out his first restaurant, Graffiato, behind Verizon Center. You can read the first one here.

Everything about Mike Isabella screams Italian: his upbringing (a native of New Jersey, where the Italian-American restaurants are more abundant than garlic in red gravy), his early cooking influences (his maternal grandmother, whose red-sauce intensive labors still resonate with him) and even his debut restaurant (named Graffiato, a Gallery Place/Chinatown operation that will serve, among many other plates, homemade pastas and wood-fired pizzas).

So why does Isabella insist on dodging the Italian tag with his forthcoming menu?

photo(23)_opt.jpg Isabella successfully shucks a clam without raising any ire. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

It has a lot to do with the chef's love of acid. "I work with a lot of acidity," Isabella says. "My palate is so used to that."

If you trace Isabella's career, you can see how it has influenced and shaped his growing love of acidity. Two of Isabella's early stops included Stephen Starr's Alma de Cuba and Jose Garces's El Vez, both Latin-oriented restaurants based in Philadelphia, where Isabella would learn the art of "cooking" raw fish in acid and how to accent flavors with pickled vegetables.

After a stop at the now-closed Washington Square in Philly, where Marcus Samuelsson gave him tips on pickling and marinades, Isabella would then simplify his acid techniques at Kyma in Atlanta and at Jose Andres's Zaytinya in Washington, where he would work with yogurts and preserved lemons and goat cheeses and other souring agents.

The chef was hooked. So hooked, in fact, he couldn't imagine creating his own restaurant without these bold Latin and Middle Eastern influences. So while Graffiato will have an Italian accent, it won't always speak Italian. So why doesn't Isabella call his cuisine "fusion" instead of his preferred "Italian-inspired"?

"I don't like the term 'fusion,' " he says. "It's abused and beaten up."

One glance at draft Graffiato menu, and you can see how Isabella's many influences make an appearance, despite some obvious Italian leanings. Among the pizzas and pastas, there are dishes such as roasted bone marrow with pistachio and cured lemon; braised octopus with chickpeas and artichokes; and, ahem, chicken wings with black-garlic Romesco.

But the chef's unique fusion can be found in plates such as his baby-back ribs, which Isabella previewed for me earlier this month at Blue Duck Tavern. His ribs are crusted with Sicilian oregano, seared, braised and then recrusted with herbs and finished in a wood-fired oven. They're served with coriander yogurt and a small salad of blood oranges, sliced radishes and marinated onions. (See video above.) It's a dish that, while incorporating a classic Italian ingredient, is no more Italian than, say, baba ghanoush. It is also, given the accompaniments, a pork dish that feels light and surprisingly refreshing on the palate.

photo(20)_opt(2).jpg Isabella's own clams casino. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The same goes for Isabella's version of clams casino, that American-made dish with the air-pinky, aristocratic air. The chef puts an Italian spin on the plate by replacing the bacon with pancetta; he also tops the littlenecks with braised kale finished with lemon juice and then adds a mixture of bread crumbs, parsley, crushed red pepper flakes and lemon zest, all of which brighten the clams like no casino dish I've tasted previously. You feel like you could knock back these tiny mollusks like shrimp poppers.

Both of these dishes, like much of Graffiato's menu, are cooked or finished in a wood-fired oven. Once he gets his building permit, Isabella plans to install a Wood Stone oven fueled by both gas and split logs. For these two demonstration dishes, Isabella borrowed executive chef Brian McBride's wood-burning oven at Blue Duck. "To me, it's an art," Isabella says about wood-fired ovens. "It's art that I want to bring back."

Isabella plans to work that oven hard when Graffiato opens this spring. His pizzas, of course, will occupy a significant portion of the oven, including a pie that riffs on his New Jersey childhood. Isabella is calling it the Jersey Shore pizza. It's topped with fried calamari, a staple of Italian-American restaurants throughout the Garden State. Instead of a spicy marinara sauce, the squid's usual dipping sauce, Isabella is surrounding his calamari with a tomato sauce (he prefers cherry tomatoes to Roma), provolone cheese and hot cherry peppers.

"It's hilarious," Isabella says about the pie. "And it's awesome."

By Tim Carman  | February 17, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags:  Brick by Brick, Tim Carman  
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Next: Top Chef All-Stars Ep. 10: Iron chef Dale

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