Washington, D.C.: Innovative, Neapolitan-Inspired Pies at Mike Isabella's Graffiato
707 6th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 (Map); 202-289-3600; graffiatodc.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan-inspired
Oven type: Wood-fired stone
The Skinny: Neapolitan-inspired pies with creative toppings are well-executed but pricy. Try Isabella's excellent (and more reasonable) small plate Italian fare.
Price: Personal-size pies range from $12-$18, small plates are $6-$15.
On paper, Mike Isabella cuts an impressive figure. He's moved around the country, working with the likes of Marcus Samuelsson, Jose Garces, and José Andrés, and made appearances on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. But pizza is a notoriously tricky endeavor, even for the most accomplished of chefs.
Graffiato is Isabella's first restaurant and an ode to his Italian-American upbringing in Jersey. The menu features small plates, pasta, wood oven-cooked meats, and, of course, Neapolitan-style pizza.
Graffiato's crowded, high-energy scene fits the liveliness of the surrounding Chinatown neighborhood. 8 p.m. on a Monday found us with a 35-minute wait for a table, so we skipped the line and slid into the first-come, first-serve pizza bar, instead. We loved watching the pizzas fly in and out of the stone oven. Isabella keeps the temperature between 700 and 800º F, for a three to four minute cook.
The menu offers two traditional pies and seven more imaginative combinations. Isabella describes his pizza as "similar to Neapolitan," but with "fun toppings like fried calamari or a sous vide egg and more garnishes than a classic Neapolitan pizza." I have to agree. Isabella has an eye for combining ingredients in an interesting way, using the pizza crust as a kind of palette for experimentation.
We started off with the American Pie ($14), Graffiato's take on a Margherita. Pillows of melted, rich mozzarella cheese top a thin layer of lightly seasoned crushed tomatoes. The basil, however, was a bit over-charred and too sparsely distributed.
We saw some nice leopard-spotting on the crust, with a fluffy, soft interior. Spots of char are well-distributed throughout the top and on the underbelly of the pie. Isabella uses a two-year-old mother dough, which he feels allows for a more flavorful crust. Each new batch incorporates a portion of the previous day's leftover dough.
The serving trays have narrow grooves to help keep the pizzas dry as they sit, but I found them to be ineffective. By the time you're onto slice number two, the weight of the toppings overtake the crust. We had some difficulty picking up the slices.
Next up was the Jersey Shore ($16), with tomato sauce, provolone, and fried calamari drizzled in a cherry pepper aioli. The tangy aioli had a nice kick to it and the calamari emerged crisp and impressively tender. I don't recommend taking home leftovers, though...soggy, day-old fried calamari just isn't as appealing.
So, yes, Graffiato serves up good pizza. They aren't the best in D.C., but they're fun and fit the hip vibe of Isabella's flagship restaurant. One thing to keep in mind is that Isabella's pizzas are downright expensive. The most costly, at $18, is the Countryman, with black truffles, Fontina cheese and a runny egg. That's a lot to pay for a personal pizza, even if it does have truffles.
If the prices of Graffiato's pizzas disconcert you, give Isabella's small plate Italian fare a close look. Not to be missed is the charred octopus, or a dish of creamy yogurt Brussels sprouts with pancetta and maple syrup. Even the most earnest of Brussels sprouts haters may find themselves converted.