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Posted at 4:30 PM ET, 01/20/2011

Brick by Brick: Designing Mike Isabella's Graffiato

By Tim Carman
photo(12)_opt.jpg Charles Perla, left, and Mike Isabella have taken a warm/cold, old/new approach to Graffiato.

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

The two-story space on Sixth Street NW that Mike Isabella selected for his debut restaurant, Graffiato, had been a print shop since the 1940s, which sounds sort of retro and charming and quaint and all that. Until you have to turn it into a fully functional restaurant.

That's when a first-time restaurateur like Isabella, former chef at Jose Andres' Zaytinya, learns how much it costs to install the necessary plumbing, venting and electric work to operate a licensed commercial kitchen. Isabella figures he has sunk, to date, nearly two-thirds of his $1.3 million budget on basic restaurant infrastructure or, as he calls it, the "stuff that people don't ever see."

This is also when a first-time restaurateur like Isabella learns about cost overruns, additional cash infusions, small compromises and the necessary evil of expediters to pull all the permits fast and (relatively) hassle-free. When Isabella talks about the financial and bureaucratic side of his project, he tends to close his eyes half-way and adopt a dazed expression, as if a roomful of accountants and bureaucrats had just taken free punches at his face. It's mostly an act; there are no budget worries, he says, with Graffiato, whose business partners include chef Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick.

photo(17)_opt.jpg The Graffiato plans are in their final stages.

The chef, who's currently brandishing knives on "Top Chef All-Stars," is far more engaged when talking about the design of Graffiato. The restaurant will provide the kind of stage that Isabella has long wanted.

Or, to be more, precise, the kind of stage that his fans have wanted.

Call it the price of celebrity. Graffiato's kitchen will be completely open, Isabella notes. There won't be an enclosed room anywhere in the restaurant (well, OK, perhaps the restrooms). That's by design. The folks who have followed Isabella's sometimes torturous run through the Bravo meat-grinder want to see the illustrated man actually cook in his own restaurant. They also want to interact with him. And Isabella, who's been toiling in Andres' back kitchen for years, wants to interact with them, too.

Charles Perla, a principal partner with DMS | Perla in Georgetown, has helped Isabella define and refine his design ideas. (Perla's firm, incidentally, also designed Volt.) The first level of Graffiato is essentially an open-air kitchen with bar seating and scattered tables. It'll have a wood-burning oven, a fry station, a flat-top and a pasta station, all within public view. Isabella figures he will cook half of his menu in the wood-burning oven, which is almost a dare to a chef, who has less control over cooking temperatures.

Upstairs will feature "cold" stations, Isabella says, where his team will prepare such things as salads, charcuterie and desserts. The top level will seat about 90, while the downstairs will have room for about 50, give or take a few diners on each level. There will also be some sidewalk seating in warmer months.

The contradictory thing about these "hot" and "cold" floors, notes Perla, is that their ambiance will be just the opposite. On the ground floor, for example, where the wood-burning fire will rage, the space will feel cool. The floor will be concrete, the bar cinder block, the walls old exposed brick. The upstairs, by contrast, will feature warm woods to counter all those cool ingredients.

If you ask Isabella why he wanted this old building, he'll tell you it had something to do with his upbringing in northern New Jersey. The space feels like those hole-in-the-wall, red-checkered-tablecloth Italian joints that have nurtured Jerseyites for generations, which makes sense given that Isabella plans to sell pizzas and pasta. Right?

Wrong.

"It's not Italian," he says of his small-plates menu. "It's not Italian at all."

Those may be odd words coming from a chef who's serving up dishes that, to the average diner, sound like classic Italian cuisine, but to Isabella this seems a matter of principle. Any derivation from the classic ingredients and techniques is, almost by definition, no longer regional Italian cooking. In a way, his modifications to the cuisine show his respect for it.

Which raises another question: So why bother with a space that channels the feeling of an old Italian-American red sauce house in New Jersey if that's not his approach? Isabella thinks about the question for a beat and then utters something that may have been churning quietly in his imagination for months:

"Just like my food has moved into something newer," Isabella says about his approach to Italian cooking, which will incorporate unusual ingredients, "we're taking an old building and making something newer."

photo(11)_opt.jpg
Isabella points out Graffiato's open kitchen, where he'll soon take up residence.
photo(9)_opt.jpg
Perla suggests a budget-saving idea: spoons as under-the-bar coat hangers.
photo(10)_opt.jpg The chef appears to be delighted by the idea.

By Tim Carman  | January 20, 2011; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags:  Brick by Brick, Tim Carman  
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