On Top Chef, his tattooed tough-guy persona turned off some viewers and some of his competitors. But all agreed his pepperoni sauce made them swoon. We’re talking food, flavors, family and friendship with one of DC’s hottest new chefs.


  • Mike Isabella Chef & Owner, Graffiato; Runner-Up, Top Chef All-Stars (Season 8, 2011)

Related Video

Isabella shares the secret to his Italian grandmother’s “gravy” (spaghetti sauce) – pig’s feet:


Courtesy Chef Mike Isabella

Pepperoni Sauce
Sample the pepperoni sauce that won Chef Isabella so much praise on the finale of “Top Chef All-Stars.”

Makes 4 1/2 cups to 4 3/4 cups

6-oz. pepperoni, cut into thin slices
4-oz. yellow onion, sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 teaspoon chili flake
1 teaspoon fennel seed, toasted
4-oz. crushed San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
4-oz. chicken stock
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1. In a pot, sweat onions in olive oil for five to seven minutes.

  1. Add garlic and continue to sweat for two minutes.

  2. Add the pepperoni and cook for about three more minutes. A

  3. Add spices and cook for an additional minute.

  4. Add the crushed tomatoes with the juice and cook for five more minutes.

  5. Lastly, add chicken stock and simmer for 40 minutes.

  6. Remove the mixture from heat and puree in a blender.

  7. Season with salt and pass it through a fine china cap.

  8. Finally, add the splash of vinegar.

Roasted Potato Gnocchi with Pork Ragu, Buratta

Isabella’s grandmother taught him how to make this dish.

Serves 4-6

4 large Idaho potatoes, washed
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 large egg yolks, beaten
¼ cup zested parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
4 quarts water (for cooking)
3 tablespoons salt (for cooking water)
pork ragu (see recipe below)
buratta (see recipe below)
¼ cup zested parmesan cheese
1 cup baby arugula leaves, loosely packed

1. Preheat the oven 425 degrees.

  1. Prick each potato several times with a fork and place on baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour.

  2. Remove the potatoes from the oven and let cool for 10-12 minutes just until you can handle them.

  3. Cut each potato open length wise and scoop out the flesh. Pass the flesh through a potato ricer into a mixing bowl.

  4. Stir in 1 cup of the all-purpose flour, egg yolks, parmesan cheese and salt. Using your hands, mix until all ingredients are just combine but make sure not to over work the dough or the gnocchi will become tough.

  5. Roll the mixture out into 12 inch by ¾ inch ropes. Sprinkle with the remaining flour so it does not stick.

  6. Cut into ¾ inch sized pieces.

  7. Bring water to a boil in a large pot then add the salt to season the water.

  8. In 3-4 batches, drop the gnocchi in the water and cook until they all float, approximately 1-2 minutes.

  9. Remove from the water and serve over the pork ragu. Top with dollops of the buratta, parmesan cheese and arugula leaves.

Pork Ragu
yields 3 cups
¾ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 ½ cups warm water
2 pork shanks, 2 ½-3 pounds bone in (pork shoulder can be substituted)
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped yellow onion
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped carrot
1 garlic clove, minced
½ cup dry white wine
1 ½ cup chicken broth
1 ½ cup canned crushed tomatoes
1 sprig rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  1. Soak dried porcini mushrooms in warm water for 30 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, season the pork shanks with kosher salt and black pepper. Then dust the pork shanks with flour.

  3. Heat the olive oil in large heavy bottom pot over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, sear the pork shanks on all sides until golden brown; approximately 2 minutes on all sides. Remove from the pot and let rest.

  4. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid for later use. Coarsely chop the mushrooms.

  5. In the same pot add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and mushrooms. Cook for 3-5 minutes until the garlic is golden.

  6. Add the white wine scraping the bottom of the pot to remove all the brown bits. Cook until the wine evaporates.

  7. Add the chicken broth, crushed tomatoes, rosemary and reserved mushroom liquid. Bring mixture to a boil and add the seared pork shanks. Cover with a lid and bake in the oven for 3 hours. Check after 1 ½ hours and turn the shanks over once.

  8. Bake the remaining 1 ½ hours and then remove the pork shank from the liquid and let both cool for 15 minutes. The meat should be falling off the bone.

  9. Pass the liquid and vegetables through a food mill on the smallest disk (or pulse in a food processor until pureed; be sure to remove the rosemary sprig). Return the liquid to the pot.

  10. Shred the pork shank making sure to get rid of all the fatty parts. Return the shredded pork in the liquid and continue to cook for 15 minutes until it becomes a rich stew.

8 ounces buratta
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1. Coarsely chop the buratta then add the salt, pepper and olive oil. Mix to evenly combine.

Roasted Cauliflower with Pecorino, Mint
A popular dish at Graffiato

Serves 4
Prep Time = 35-40 minutes

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 head cauliflower (cut into florets)
½ cup thinly shaved red onion
¼ cup grated pecorino
10 mint leaves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

  1. Add the butter to a stainless steel pan over medium heat. Once it begins to melt; whisk occasionally so the butter does not burn. It will start to bubble and you will want to whisk it around every 10-15 seconds. You will start to see little brown bits form and it will happen quickly. Continue to whisk and once the butter has turned light brown and has a nutty aroma, remove from the heat. It will continue to brown after it has been removed from the heat. This is browned butter.

  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss together the cauliflower florets with the browned butter. Then transfer to a baking sheet and roasted in the oven for approximately 15 minutes or until just tender. You still want a little crunch.

  3. Return the roasted cauliflower to the mixing bowl and while still hot, toss in the red onion, pecorino and mint. Then drizzle the lemon juice over the cauliflower; toss and transfer to a serving dish.

Note:It is important to use a stainless steel pan when making the browned butter. It allows you to see what is happening.


  • 12:07:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. He takes simple high-quality ingredients and tweaks them, makes familiar flavors taste, well, different. Five years ago, New Jersey native Mike Isabella moved to the District to work at one of our top restaurants. Thanks, Jose. And he's been burning up the restaurant scene ever since. Fans of reality TV cooking shows might know him as tough-talking Jersey Mike from Bravo's "Top Chef." But don't think of him as a celebrity chef.

  • 12:08:26

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat would not do him justice. His Chinatown restaurant opened last year is constantly busy. And his second restaurant, a Mexican-inspired place, will open on Georgetown's M Street this spring. An emerging local restaurateur with a passion for sourcing his food locally, Mike wants us all to taste familiar foods again, like tasting them for the first time. Mike Isabella joins us in studio. He is executive chef and owner of Graffiato. Mike Isabella, good to have you in studio, finally. Thanks for joining us.

  • 12:08:59

    MR. MIKE ISABELLANot a problem. It's great being here.

  • 12:09:01

    NNAMDIWell, let me start with a story from one of the members of our production staff. One of my producers is married to an Italian guy, a true born-and-raised-in-Italy Italian guy. And after eating at Graffiato, and apparently loving it, he was shocked to learn you were not trained in Italy.

  • 12:09:21

    ISABELLANo, no. I was -- I grew up cooking with my grandmother when I was a kid. You know, she's from the Bronx in New York. But, you know, I just put a love into it and try to keep everything local. That's my style.

  • 12:09:35

    NNAMDIIn preparing for this conversation, I read some interviews with you and noticed that when asked what part of Italy your food is from, you answer New Jersey.

  • 12:09:46

    ISABELLAYeah, it's kind of like a running joke. You know, I say that just because I've never been -- you know, I never cooked Italian professionally. I've never been to, like, Italy and trained to cook. So I'm from New Jersey. I grew up there, and that's where I started cooking. So when people ask me that, that's what I say. When you eat the food, you kind of see it's not really fully classic -- there's some classic dishes, but we always like to have some fun with the food, you know?

  • 12:10:10

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here if you'd like to join the conversation with Mike Isabella. 800-433-8850. Have ideas for updating an Italian classic? Maybe you figured out a flavor twist or a dish worthy of Chef Mike or contemplating one and you'd like advice. Call and tell us about it, 800-433-8850. You say Graffiato is a fun neighborhood restaurant. The flavors might taste high-end, but the atmosphere shouldn't be high-end. Why is that?

  • 12:10:43

    ISABELLAYou know, I always like to say Graffiato is like a neighborhood restaurant, you know, a number -- foremost, number one, just because, you know, the way we design the concept is, you know, you can kind of come in and get a pizza and leave or a glass of wine and leave, or you can kind of come in and get a tasting menu. It's really up to you. You control your whole dining experience, and it gives people options. And people like options. So we have a lot of people that come in multiple times a week, which is maybe a drink, maybe a pizza, maybe a pasta.

  • 12:11:10

    ISABELLAAll the portions are all small plates and small, so you don't have to eat too much. And -- or you can come in and dine in the dining room upstairs and chill out with us and spend some time. So, you know, we're just a casual place. It's a little bit loud in there 'cause we like to have some fun with the music. And, you know, it's just meant to be a casual place, like -- that I would go as a kid, you know, local neighborhood restaurant that we would go and they would know my family, and they would know me. And, you know, that's what I wanted to kind of bring to D.C. when we opened up.

  • 12:11:38

    NNAMDIHow would you describe the food at Graffiato?

  • 12:11:41

    ISABELLAWell, well, we call Italian-inspired, and we call it inspired because we don't really import anything. Everything is local. A lot of our produce and our meats are all from the farmers and things like that. We have local wines from Virginia and New York. So, for us, we try to go as East Coast as possible, then, if not, domestic. But there's very little stuff that we're really importing, and that's why we call it inspired.

  • 12:12:04

    NNAMDIYour local emphasis is fascinating. It's one of the things we like about Graffiato here. What were some of easiest things to find locally, and what were some of the hardest?

  • 12:12:16

    ISABELLASome of the hardest, I guess, was, like, the flour for the pizza and the pasta. You know, we're getting it from Vermont.

  • 12:12:21


  • 12:12:22

    ISABELLAAnd that was definitely tough because all the good flours come from, you know, Italy, the pizza flours and things. We did a lot of testing. But the easy stuff is -- was the animals, with the whole pigs, the goats, the lambs, you know, working with the product produce, the cheeses. So that was definitely a little bit easier because, you know, we have a lot of farms around the area.

  • 12:12:42

    NNAMDII'm guessing you were exposed to a lot of different foods and flavors when you were growing up. Your mom was a vegetarian, wasn't she?

  • 12:12:49

    ISABELLAYeah, she was a vegetarian, a woman liberalist, you know? So it was definitely unique, so I did have a lot of different flavor profiles. And my dad was, obviously, a very classic Italian.

  • 12:13:01

    NNAMDIWell, you cheated, too. Did you find yourself eating a lot of foods that were unfamiliar to the other kids, say, at your school because your mom was a vegetarian?

  • 12:13:09

    ISABELLAYes. And I -- growing up, I did not like any of them. I mean, people would be pulling out normal stuff...

  • 12:13:14

    NNAMDIWhat's in your lunch bag, Mikey?

  • 12:13:16

    ISABELLAYeah. You know, I mean, it was definitely weird. You know, I mean, I would -- I had curries and tofu and, you know, tabouli and hummus at a very young age when kids were eating potato chips and McDonald's.

  • 12:13:27

    NNAMDIWhat is that, right?

  • 12:13:28

    ISABELLAYeah. You know?

  • 12:13:30

    NNAMDIAre you still mining those childhood flavors for ideas at your restaurant today?

  • 12:13:34

    ISABELLAI mean, a little bit here and there. I definitely think it came out a lot when I was at Zaytinya. You know, that's where a lot of -- the memories came back and from my -- eating with my mom. And Graffiato is more of my grandmother from...

  • 12:13:47

    NNAMDII was about to say it's my understanding that your grandmother's who sparked your love for Italian food.

  • 12:13:53

    ISABELLAYeah, big time. You know, I was, I guess, a little wild kid running around the kitchen or running around the house. And one day, my grandmother had me help her roll out meatballs. And I just got really, you know, involved in it. And it kept my mind busy, so I wasn't, you know, terrorizing everyone in the house. And that's kind of how cooking pretty much began for me.

  • 12:14:11

    ISABELLAAnd then whenever she'd come over and cook, I'd, like, run in the kitchen and try to hang out with her and do whatever she wanted me to do, you know, peel garlic, roll meatballs, you know, make some pasta with her, stuff like that, so...

  • 12:14:22

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Emmett in Princeton, N.J. Emmett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:29

    EMMETTThanks for taking my call.

  • 12:14:31

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:14:32

    EMMETTI was amused by the comment that the chef made about a Italian customer in his restaurant wanting to know what part of Italy he would cook in. As an African-American growing up in New Jersey, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood and was eating at my friend's house and enjoying Italian food and went to Italy to try and get the same thing and found that the Italian food that I had in New Jersey was, in so many ways, much better, more zesty, more tasty. And I found myself being a bit disappointed in comparing the two, so I understand the statement about good Italian food from New Jersey.

  • 12:15:20

    NNAMDIHey. What do you say to that, Mike Isabella?

  • 12:15:24

    ISABELLAIt's awesome. It's awesome to hear that.

  • 12:15:25

    NNAMDIA homegrown fan.

  • 12:15:28

    NNAMDIWell, New Jersey found the Italian food in New Jersey better than he found it in Italy. Emmett, thank you very much for your call. Have you got a favorite overlooked Italian herb or spice or cut of meat? Maybe Chef Mike has an idea for how to rev it up for the 21st century. Call us at 800-433-8850. Mike, I'm told every Italian grandmother knows the secret to great gravy. Will you share her secret or yours with us?

  • 12:15:53

    ISABELLASure. Why not? Not a problem.

  • 12:15:57

    ISABELLAYou know, it's -- every, I guess, growing -- you know, growing up in New Jersey, every Italian, you know, their grandmother makes the best gravy. And when you leave -- and I guess it's New York, New Jersey, a lot of those areas, a lot of people, if they're not Italian, when you say gravy as a kid, they think the stuff that goes with turkey. And it's really not. And, you know, as Italians, you know, you have your tomato sauce, and what changes tomato sauce to gravy is that when -- you know, you make it to sauce first, and then you want to cook all your meats.

  • 12:16:25

    ISABELLASo when you're cooking sausages or meatballs or braciole, things like that, you put those meats into the tomato sauce. And then that transfers into gravy. But the one thing that my grandmother did was she would always put pig's feet into the tomato sauce with all the other meats, the braciole, the pork, the meatballs, the sausage. And it was, like, awesome, and it was just so soft. And she cooked it for hours, and I remember as a kid, I would just be like, you know, gnawing on this little pig's foot over there.

  • 12:16:56

    ISABELLAAnd every Christmas, my Aunt Connie would make pig's feet just for me and my grandmother 'cause she knew that we really loved them. And that was her little trick that she always put into the gravy, was the pig's foot.

  • 12:17:04

    NNAMDIMike has shared some other secrets with us. We've posted recipes at our website. You can see that at kojoshow.org. We got this email from Holly who said, "We had dinner at Graffiato last night, one of the most memorable meals of my life, and I'm not young. However, we were served steak with a green sauce that didn't please me too much. I couldn't identify all the ingredients in the sauce, but I felt truffle oil was involved.

  • 12:17:29

    NNAMDI"I'm not a fan of truffles or truffle oil. But can Mike, please, explain the appeal of umami taste to me? And maybe he can explain why some people like it so much, and yet it doesn't sit well with my taste buds at all."

  • 12:17:42

    ISABELLAWell, the green sauce that goes with the steak, it's -- there's really -- you know, unless a bottle slipped into it, but there's no truffle in there. But it's an arugula pesto, made with basil and pistachio nuts and parmesan cheese and olive oil and garlic. So it's a little bit more of a unique pesto. I think when you take ingredients and you change them up a little bit, it kind of surprises people. So, usually, when you think of arugula, you think of it as a salad. You're not thinking of it as a puree.

  • 12:18:08


  • 12:18:09

    ISABELLAAnd people don't fully understand what it is sometimes. But, you know, that's what that is. Umami, for me, is -- it's just another taste element. You know, you always have your sweet and your sours or your spicy. Umami is just another element in the taste bud. And it doesn't have to be truffle. I mean, it could be, you know, the oyster liqueur from the oyster. It could be mushrooms.

  • 12:18:29

    ISABELLAAnd there's so many -- it's just a different flavor profile that hits in your palate that really changes things up. It could be just, you know, a special ripeness in a tomato, you know? It could be, really, anything -- doesn't have to be just truffles. And we like it because it gives us another dimension, another layer of flavor that we can add in to kind of surprise your palate, and that's what we try to do at Graffiato.

  • 12:18:50

    ISABELLAWe always try to hide something inside the food and -- not hide it. But, like, our spaghetti with cherry tomato sauce has Thai basil from Thailand, but it has an anis flavor in there. You wouldn't expect it. It's unexpected, and that's what we try to do there. We're keeping it classic, but unexpected little notes.

  • 12:19:04

    NNAMDIExpecting the unexpected with Mike Isabella, executive chef and owner of Graffiato. Fans of the reality TV cooking show "Top Chef" will remember him from season 6 and from last year's "Top Chef All-Stars." Back to the telephones. Here is Ronnie in Alexandria, Va. Ronnie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:25

    RONNIEHi, Kojo. Good to hear your voice again. Hello, chef.

  • 12:19:27

    ISABELLAHow are you doing?

  • 12:19:29

    RONNIEGood. Yes. My question to you and to Kojo, probably, to see if you can answer, I grew up with Italian immigrants from Italy in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. There was this recipe that is very common over there, which is a type of eggplant. Well, no eggplant -- it's a lasagna made instead of pasta with the eggplant, roast eggplant, ricotta cheese and cilantro. You see, those are those memory kind of thing that you want -- all the time, but I haven't been able to find one of those here in a local restaurant in the area.

  • 12:20:08

    NNAMDIWell, I can answer that question because I can't find one either. So Mike Isabella will have to give you a more positive answer. Mike, you know any of those?

  • 12:20:17

    ISABELLAI don't know any of those. That seems more -- it seems more of a creative dish of someone that would make -- you know, instead of using pasta, they're using thin-sliced eggplant, it seems, you know, layering it with some cheese and stuff like that. The cilantro is definitely a unique mix into that. I think that's more of the Latin involved from, I guess, the region that you were in. But, yeah, I haven't seen too many of those eggplant, cheese and cilantro dishes around either. But maybe if you come into the restaurant one night, we'll make something similar.

  • 12:20:43

    NNAMDIHey, Ronnie, you can give it a try. 800-433-8850 is the number Ronnie called, the number you can call, too, if you'd like to join the conversation with Chef Mike Isabella. 800-433-8850. What changes do you see celebrity chefs bringing to the D.C. food scene? When some people hear Jersey Italian, they think of pasta drowned in red sauce. But Graffiato serves Italian small plate style, as you mentioned earlier, Mike. What, if any, challenges were there in making this trendy dining style fit in to the kind of down-home Italian aesthetic?

  • 12:21:17

    ISABELLAWell, for me, the number one thing is, you know, growing up as a kid, you know, my brothers and sisters and, you know, my family and aunts and uncles, we would eat -- you know, it'd be big, big platters of food. And that's the way everyone thinks about Italian food, you know, a big plate of pasta. And, you know, living in the city -- I live with my wife. It's just two of us, and we go out to eat. And we like to try things, and a lot of people live like that.

  • 12:21:38

    ISABELLAYou know, there's a lot of couples and singles and stuff, so I wanted people to be able to have the same experience of eating, you know, maybe three, four, five, six dishes, but being able to do it in a restaurant. So that's why we just made all the plates just a little bit smaller, so everyone can try a couple of dishes and have fun and be able to get a pasta and a salad and maybe a pizza and a drink.

  • 12:21:56

    NNAMDIYou know, when you think of it, when you were a kid, you really wanted -- even though the servings were so large, you really wanted to taste some of everything, and so it kind of makes sense that now you can actually do that. I've seen some food blogs that claim small plates is a D.C. trend specifically. Who popularized this style, I'm afraid to ask, and what's so great about it?

  • 12:22:18

    ISABELLAWell, I mean, you know, one of the godfathers is Jose Andres with the tapas.

  • 12:22:21

    NNAMDII knew his name would come up on this broadcast.

  • 12:22:25

    ISABELLABut, you know, I mean, you look further back to the 1500s when the Ottoman Empire was serving the meze in the small plates. And it's been going on for years. I don't think it's a trend. I just think it's the way people like to eat. People really enjoy food. It's fun to try different things, and it -- you know, everyone has different tastes. Certain people like this. Certain people like that.

  • 12:22:41

    ISABELLAAnd if you can have an array of things, it'll make it more positive for everybody. And I think that's really the way food is going in general. I think it'll -- I think as time goes on, there'll be less and less of those app and entrée plates as time goes on because people don't want to get bored eating the same thing for, you know, 15, 20 minutes.

  • 12:22:57

    NNAMDIThank you. We got an email from Salvatore, who says, "I have to say I was shocked to see in a recent interview with Mike in "Food & Wine" that Mike says he thinks whole wheat fettuccini gets a bad wrap and, if cooked right, can be just as good as so-called regular pasta. It makes me wonder. What's his secret? I've tried to convert my family to whole wheat pasta, but it's not working. What am I doing wrong? Are you making your own pasta? If yes, what machine do you use, or do you do it all by hand somehow?"

  • 12:23:24

    ISABELLAYeah, I make my own whole wheat pasta. You can buy them. They are good to buy. I mean, you know, it -- people think it's too healthy to eat. You know, everyone wants to eat up a pasta and not think it's healthy. But whole wheat is a little bit healthy. I do make my own. You can buy it. You know, it's -- I guess it's more of a technique when you make it. But if you were to buy it, it's just, you know pairing it up with something that's fun, maybe some nice sautéed shrimp and garlic.

  • 12:23:49

    ISABELLAI mean, garlic makes everything a little bit better, so if you have a nice, little whole wheat pasta penne or spaghetti and you have a nice olive oil and garlic and some fresh herbs in there, maybe some sautéed shrimp, it could be a great dish. And I think that, with all those flavors going on, you're going to get lost in realizing how healthy it is. And that's what -- you know, that's kind of the way I do it. I kind of balance everything out and have fun with it.

  • 12:24:10

    NNAMDICooking aside, you became known to television viewers through the popular show "Top Chef." You were on twice, once in season six and again in last year's "Top Chef All-Stars." In both seasons, you were pegged the tough-talking Jersey guido.

  • 12:24:25

    NNAMDIDo you think reality TV and America in general is a bit obsessed with New Jersey?

  • 12:24:32

    ISABELLAI really do think they do. I don't know why. I mean, growing up as kid, people are embarrassed to say they're from Jersey. Nowadays, people are like, yeah, I'm from Jersey. And I think "The Sopranos" changed everyone's mentality, when that show came on years ago, like, oh, all the tough people are from Jersey or, you know -- but, yeah, it is. I mean, you get the "Jersey Shore." You have "Jerseylicious." You have "Jersey Couture." You have, you know, Jersey, Jersey, Jersey.

  • 12:24:54

    ISABELLAThey talk about it because we're kind of our own little group over there, you know? There's a lot of Italians that come from there. You know, we talk a little bit different. We have a little bit more of a slang in our vocabulary. But, you know, I mean, for me, it's just -- I'm happy wherever I am, but I think people are, you know, a little bit obsessed with some Jersey stuff, which is not a bad thing. It's just funny. Some people make fun of us. Some people, you know, enjoy it. So it's a little of both.

  • 12:25:19

    NNAMDIThen -- of course, there's Snooki. Oh, he said that on public radio. Here is John in Frederick, Md. John, you are on the air. John, I think you're on the air. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:25:30

    JOHNHi, Kojo.

  • 12:25:31

    NNAMDIHi, John.

  • 12:25:32

    JOHNI am a gardener. And I grow basil, and I have been growing it for years, and I make a pesto that is out of this world with olive oil, garlic, roasted pine nuts. And I use it with -- I just mix -- sometimes I mix some tomatoes if they're good and put it on tortellini or maybe angel hair pasta. And as good as that is, I'm interested in maybe using it with something else. Any suggestions, chef?

  • 12:26:08

    ISABELLAYeah, I mean, if you -- you know, it's good -- it'd be good to, like, marinate some shrimp and then sauté them up, and you have that beautiful pesto flavor on the shrimp. It'd go great with chicken. You could do it as a sauce. And if you think -- if don't want too much of it, but you want to make it a sauce, you can add some, you know, arugula to it to kind of cut it a little bit, to kind of balance it.

  • 12:26:27

    JOHNI'm sorry, add some what?

  • 12:26:29

    ISABELLASome arugula to the pesto, so when you're pureeing up your basil, add a little arugula. And then that can go great with chicken...

  • 12:26:35


  • 12:26:37

    ISABELLA...you know? And then, again, like, marinating some shrimp, you know, putting it on a pizza instead of a sauce, you can use the pesto for that. So it's really what you -- whatever creativity you really have. You could kind of use it in a different aspect and just, you know, try things out and do different things. And, you know, for me, the most I learned is when -- I don't want to say messed up, but when I try different things. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it wasn't. That's kind of how you learn.

  • 12:26:59

    NNAMDIMike never messes up. John, thank you...

  • 12:27:01

    JOHNAll right.

  • 12:27:02

    NNAMDIThank you very much for the call.

  • 12:27:02

    JOHNThank you. Thanks a lot.

  • 12:27:03

    NNAMDIOn to Mark in Silver Spring, Md. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:27:08

    MARKHi, Mike. Hi, Kojo.

  • 12:27:11

    ISABELLAHow's it...

  • 12:27:11

    MARKHey, Mike. I live in Silver Spring. But, when I was a kid, I lived in Livorno, Italy, and my father was in the Army at the time.

  • 12:27:20


  • 12:27:21

    MARKAnd we used to eat a dish called Torta di Ceci. It's also called farinata. It was a pizza made out of chickpea flour.

  • 12:27:30

    NNAMDIA pizza out of chickpea flour, yes?

  • 12:27:34

    MARKRight. No cheese. It was the chickpea flour, a little white flour, a little olive oil and rosemary -- very important ingredient, rosemary, cooked at about 700 degrees. It's absolutely delicious. And I've been looking all over the Washington, D.C., area to see if anyone makes it, and I can't find it.

  • 12:27:55

    NNAMDIThat's funny. I tend to like all things chickpea, but go ahead, Mike.

  • 12:27:57

    ISABELLAYeah. No, it sounds really good, chickpea and rosemary. I think I'd want to go back and test it at the restaurant when I get out of here.

  • 12:28:04

    MARKYeah. Then in the south of France, they call it socca.

  • 12:28:09

    ISABELLAOK, socca. I know what you're talking about. We've done specials with it before when we first opened up, not in a pizza fashion, but more in a socca where we make it a flatbread, like a chickpea flatbread. That's kind of more similar to what it is. We did have something like that with the octopus when we first opened. I haven't run it for a while, but I would definitely -- think in the spring again. You know, give us a call.

  • 12:28:28

    ISABELLAMaybe we'll have something running as a special because we do do similar things, not usually as a pizza, but more as a flatbread.

  • 12:28:33

    NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Mark. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, Mike Isabella will talk more about why he loves to fix octopus so much. And you can join that conversation at 800-433-8850, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Make a comment or ask a question there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:37:08

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation. We're talking with Mike Isabella, executive chef and owner of Graffiato. You may remember him from season six on "Top Chef" and from last year's "Top Chef All-Stars." You may want to talk with him. We still have a couple of lines open at 800-433-8850. If the lines are all busy, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. You may feel like sending us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to kojo@wamu.org.

  • 12:37:36

    NNAMDII love tweets like the one Martha tweeted to us, Mike, because -- especially since we're talking about your food -- Martha tweeted to ask, "I love your tattoos. Which is your favorite? Who is your favorite tattoo artist? And have you gotten any tats in D.C. yet?"

  • 12:37:51

    ISABELLAOf course, I got them in D.C. Yes, that's my -- I go to Jinx Proof in Georgetown. I've been going there for years. My wife goes there. I just -- I was there on Saturday, getting a couple hours' work done on my leg. But, you know, I guess one of my newer ones that I really like is I have a pizza cutter with brass knuckles. I got that right before I opened up Graffiato. It was for more of, like, a kick-butt-type of thing for when we opened up, and so it's definitely a fun and unexpected tattoo that you'd see on me. So that's probably one of my favorite ones.

  • 12:38:21

    NNAMDIWe traffic in tattoos on this broadcast. We also traffic in rumors. So let's go to Scott in Washington, D.C., because, Scott, I think I know the rumor that you're talking about. But you tell it. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:38:33

    SCOTTSure. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 12:38:35

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:38:35

    SCOTTI'm a big fan, Mike. I live on the 14th Street Corridor, and I just wanted to see if you would comment about this potential big restaurant that is rumored at 14th NW and just sort of follow up, and in general, what your thoughts were...

  • 12:38:51

    NNAMDIRumors are swirling. I saw it in City Paper this morning.

  • 12:38:54

    SCOTTYeah. And what your thoughts are in general about the 14th Street Corridor, and what it is that's attracting chefs like you and Jeff Black and Stephen Starr?

  • 12:39:03

    ISABELLAYou know, I wanted to move to 14th Street for the longest time. I haven't moved there. I live in Chinatown. I've been living there for years. I love that neighborhood. I think it's a great neighborhood, and it's a real neighborhood. And I really enjoy that. And, for me, I think it's just a great area. It's upcoming area, and to be able to put a restaurant there would be great. I haven't signed any leases or anything yet. I mean, you know, when you look at something, people are like, oh, Mike's going to do this or Mike's going to do that. So nothing is confirmed yet.

  • 12:39:35

    ISABELLAAnd that's because I don't have any deals signed. I mean, right now, we're opening up Bandolero in Georgetown. You know, but it would be a goal of mine in my career definitely to open up on 14th Street. And we all know I did cook a lot of great cuisines, so it's going to happen. When and where, well, hopefully, we'll know sooner than later, but you just never know. Things take time. So at this point, nothing is confirmed. But, hopefully, I can, you know, open up something.

  • 12:39:57

    NNAMDIYou've worked in D.C. You met your wife in Atlanta, Ga. You've worked in other cities. What is it about D.C., about our region, that makes this the city you want to stick around in?

  • 12:40:08

    ISABELLAWell, it's multiple reasons. You know, I've lived in Philly and New York and Atlanta and D.C., so I'm an East Coast guy for life. And when I came to this city, it was just like -- it was like, there was different neighborhoods, different areas. It's the capital. And then, you know, there's -- I mean, there's farms out here. I mean, there were so many great things that really attracted me to, you know, based on my career. My families are close. My wife's families are close. And...

  • 12:40:35

    NNAMDIDoes Stacy like it here now?

  • 12:40:37

    ISABELLAShe loves it here. She loves it. And, you know, her parents live in Pennsylvania. Her sister lives in Maryland. So, for us, you know, we're neighbors to them, and we just really enjoy the city. It's growing, and it's great to be a part of the growth. And there's so many, like, different communities, and, you know, again, you know, working with all my relationships with my purveyors and farmers and things like that. I couldn't -- I wouldn't want to rebuild that anywhere else but here.

  • 12:41:01

    NNAMDIOn to Stan in Gaithersburg, Md. Stan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:41:06

    STANThank you. I'm curious because I've never tasted octopus. And I'm curious, chef, how you prepare it or how -- some ways that you prepare it. But also if you can give me -- is there anything similar in taste that you could compare it to? I'm just -- the octopus really intrigues me.

  • 12:41:26

    NNAMDIWhat is it with you and octopus?

  • 12:41:29

    ISABELLAYou know, it's funny. It was always a joke, but -- like, I've been cooking Greek cuisine for a long time. And they say in Greece -- when I was out in Greece, like, cooking, they say, you're not a chef until you can cook the perfect octopus. And, you know, when I nailed that...

  • 12:41:44

    NNAMDIHad to rise to meet that challenge.

  • 12:41:45

    ISABELLAYeah. So when I cooked it and I cooked it right and I nailed that recipe, I was just like, I made it. And I was obviously a lot younger. But it was just something that I enjoy to cook. You know, octopus is octopus. I mean, I don't want to compare it to calamari or anything like that. I want to keep it its own thing. And, you know, for me, it's the cooking process. You have to cook it for a long period of time to make it tender. And, you know, sometimes people cook it in tomato-based sauces, like the Italians.

  • 12:42:12

    ISABELLABut the Greeks, they cook it in vinegar for about, you know, 45 minutes to, like, an hour, an hour-and-a-half, depending on the size of the octopus. You know, smaller, less, bigger, larger, until it's tender. Once it's tender, you throw it out on the grill and char it up, and it's a beautiful thing.

  • 12:42:26

    NNAMDIHey, Stan, thank you very much for your call. Is there anything else you'd like to know, Stan?

  • 12:42:30

    STANWell, I'm just wondering, this is the arms of the octopus we're talking about cooking or some other parts?

  • 12:42:37

    ISABELLAYes. You want to use the tentacles. You really don't use the head. Usually, you get the octopus. You cook it whole, but you want to cut the head off at the end and just use the tentacles. So that's the best way.

  • 12:42:48


  • 12:42:49

    NNAMDIStan, thank you very much for your call. From Stan to Ann in Silver Spring, Md. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:58

    ANNHi. I've been a big fan ever since "Top Chef," and I'm really -- that you're here and that you're cooking with whole foods. And I was wondering if you have ever tried to make risottos with brown rice because I've been doing it. It works out pretty well for me, but I'm not sure if I'd serve it to a foodie...

  • 12:43:19

    ISABELLAWell, yeah. I mean, I've never made it with brown rice, but I've made it with other things. I mean, risotto is more of a technique than a grade of rice. Risotto is, you know, more of how you're constantly stirring it and pulling the starches out of the rice to make it creamy and rich and slowly adding warm stock or whatever you want into it to slowly cook it. So it is more of a technique. So you can do anything you want. I would definitely serve it to anyone.

  • 12:43:42

    ISABELLAI mean, if you, you know, serving rice where you're, you know, slowly cooking it and stirring it and pulling the starches out is a good thing. I wouldn't expect you to get as much starch out of brown rice than you would to a regular rice, but, you know, what I can recommend, too, is, you know, adding a little bit of, you know, maybe like a mascarpone cheese or something creamy and rich to make an -- to give it that creaminess. And you can even put a little yogurt in there to give it some creaminess and richness.

  • 12:44:06

    ISABELLAAnd I would definitely serve it to someone. And then in the springtime, some nice, you know, brown rice risotto with some, like, you know, peas and fava beans and a little bit of mint and a touch of mascarpone could be a beautiful thing.

  • 12:44:18

    STANMm, those are great suggestions. Thank you.

  • 12:44:21

    NNAMDIAnn, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850 with your comments and questions for Chef Mike Isabella. 800-433-8850. I know you've got a busy schedule and probably don't get much time to eat out yourself. But I'm wondering what are some of the favorite places in D.C., if you and Stacy want to go out for a special night out, where do you go?

  • 12:44:45

    ISABELLAThere's a lot of great places in D.C. There's a lot of great chefs. There's a lot of great food. And there's -- I guess, for the more special nights, I would definitely go along more the lines of The Source or Bourbon Steak in Georgetown. I mean, those are two great places. If we're in the mood for sushi, we'd go to Sushi Taro upstairs. Awesome, awesome sushi chef. And then if we wanted, like, something quicker and a little bit easier...

  • 12:45:13

    NNAMDIPizza, pizza.

  • 12:45:14

    ISABELLAPizza, 2Amys. 2Amys is probably the best in the city. It's -- you know, I love that place. I've been going there since I moved out here. And, you know, to be from up North and when you come down here, you're like, where can I get good pizza? Everyone's like, 2Amys. And I went there, and it was phenomenal. So I love 2Amys.

  • 12:45:29

    NNAMDIBut at Graffiato, you have a "Jersey Shore" pizza.

  • 12:45:32

    ISABELLAWe do have a "Jersey Shore" pizza. It was kind of like a little joke when we opened up, and, you know, I wanted to rework a clam pizza, a seafood pizza. And I did it with fried calamari, and it's just been a huge hit since. So, for me, it's been fun, and I love to eat it. I mean, spicy sauce with some fried calamari on a pizza, you can't go wrong.

  • 12:45:52

    NNAMDIWell, I was going to ask you about Bandolero, but allow this email to take me into that from Alex. He says, "As someone with severe food allergies, I've been a loyal customer of Zaytinya for years, not only because the food is fabulous, but because -- also because of Zaytinya's attention to those with allergies. I love that they have special dedicated separate menus that tell you all the foods you can eat depending on your kind of food-specific allergy.

  • 12:46:16

    NNAMDI"Will you do the same at Graffiato or at your upcoming Mexican place Bandolero? If so, you might have another loyal customer on your hands. And on behalf of all of those with allergies, thanks for all your efforts."

  • 12:46:29

    ISABELLAYou know, at Graffiato, the menu changes almost sometimes weekly, so we don't have the individual separate menus like we did at Zaytinya. But we do have -- everyone's trained on all the allergies, and we do, you know, break the menu down for the guests when they come in, and also, too, if -- like, gluten allergies. Like, we have corn pasta just in stock, you know, in our house. So if someone has a gluten allergy, we usually offer a corn pasta to them if they want to get one of the pastas. And, you know, the great thing with Bandolero is, you know...

  • 12:46:57

    NNAMDIComing soon to M Street.

  • 12:46:58

    ISABELLAYeah, coming soon. We'll have a lot of corn-based products, you know, with the tortillas and this and that, so there's not a lot of flour. There's not a lot of gluten allergies for people to worry about. And we will have multiple menus there at Bandolero, definitely, 'cause it's a non -- the menu is not going to change every week like Graffiato.

  • 12:47:13

    NNAMDIWell, you're moving from single to multiple restaurants. What, if anything, did Jose Andres teach you about the secrets of building a successful restaurant empire, if you will?

  • 12:47:23

    ISABELLAYeah. You know, it's -- you're always as -- only as good as your team. So if -- you know, if I didn't have a strong team at Graffiato, I wouldn't be able to leave there and open up a second place. So, for me, recruiting and staffing is probably one of the biggest things that I focus on. Being able to have trust and knowing that the products going to be the same, whether I'm there or not, is the biggest thing, and, you know, that was one of the -- why one of the reasons Jose hired me 'cause he knew that he can trust me, and I knew the food. And I was going to, you know, put my heart and soul into it.

  • 12:47:53

    ISABELLAAnd it's the same with some of my chefs.

  • 12:47:54

    NNAMDIWell, why are you going Mexican with Bandolero?

  • 12:47:58

    ISABELLAYou know, the space just kind of popped up in front of me. I thought it was a great location. There was no Mexican in that area. And, back in the day, I used to be the chef at El Vez, who -- I was a sous chef at El Vez and at Alma de Cuba, so I was cooking the food for years underneath Jose Garces who's an Iron Chef. And, you know, he was one of my mentors also. And I did some traveling, and I love to eat the food. So it's kind of going back to some of my roots when I cooked at a younger age.

  • 12:48:24

    NNAMDIWell, you know, talk show hosts like to have part-time jobs, too, but I'll let Rick in College Park, Md. speak for me. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:33

    RICKHey, thank you for taking my call, Kojo. And what's up, chef?

  • 12:48:36

    ISABELLAWhat's going on?

  • 12:48:37

    RICKI'm calling because I actually have been a server in the city for a couple of years throughout college. And I actually served you before, Kojo, over at Acadiana restaurant. I know you love the roasted duck with dirty rice and collard greens. My question, though, had a little bit more to do with staffing. Currently bartending at Georgetown, but I've lived in Mexico in the past, love Mexican cuisine and am very excited about your new restaurant, chef.

  • 12:49:00

    RICKSo just curious when I should keep my eye out as far as coming by, interviews, when servers should start coming out of the woodwork to serve your product. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.

  • 12:49:09

    NNAMDIAnd thank you for waiting on me, too, Rick.

  • 12:49:13

    ISABELLAWe'll probably start taking resumes and stuff like that in March, looks like a good time. We're under construction right now. It's hard to say when we'll be open. You know, we wanted to be open in January, but, obviously, not even close. We're in February going into March. So we'll probably take them towards the end of March, I would think. And definitely come on by. I mean, if you know some of the food and the product, and you've been to Mexico and -- yeah, we'd love to bring you on board.

  • 12:49:38

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Mike Isabella, executive chef and owner of Graffiato and Bandolero, soon to be coming to M Street somewhere near you. Here is Michael in Herndon, Va. Michael, your turn.

  • 12:49:51

    MICHAELHi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a longtime listener, first-time caller, but I have been listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" before. And you had a chef on, talking about, like, some advanced kind of cleaning techniques, like cooking at very low temperatures for very long times, like using liquid nitrogen, stuff like that. I was just wondering if he -- if the chef had taken any of those sort of techniques and adopted them or if he's staying away from that.

  • 12:50:17

    NNAMDIDo you mean whether he's been learning from this show or whether he's been doing that on his own?

  • 12:50:22

    MICHAELOh, as far as, like, taking on these new, like, sort of different approaches to cooking that they're coming up with that are more scientific as opposed to traditional.

  • 12:50:31


  • 12:50:32

    ISABELLAYou know, I've been doing it for a long time. I've been working with -- I have circulators. It's called sous vide when -- I mean, cooking under pressure when it's wrapped up in the bags. And, yeah, we do it at the restaurant. We do it -- we have some products here and there, some specials, sometimes chicken, sometimes our pork cheeks. We do. We cook them for 36 hours, which is on the menu. So, yeah, I use that.

  • 12:50:55

    ISABELLAI don't use liquid nitrogen at all. I mean, all you're really doing is freezing something and freezing it quickly. I don't work on a lot of desserts. So, for me, it's -- you know, I don't do that, but definitely the slow cooking and some of the techniques. And, yeah, I do know a lot of them, and I'll incorporate them when needed to be incorporated. But I don't try to highlight it ever. And I try to keep it -- you know, I just want people to eat good food. And, however I cook, which I use both methods, more modern and classic, I keep to myself, so it's just about the meal.

  • 12:51:23

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Michael. I've read some -- I met some chefs who love and collect cookbooks. They treasure them. They read them cover to cover like novels. Others use them only as necessary. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

  • 12:51:36

    ISABELLAI have tons of cookbooks. I love to read. It inspires me. Chefs inspire me. Dining inspires me. So, yeah, I'm a big fan of buying cookbooks. And, you know, everyone has a different thing. For me, when I start seeing pictures and stuff, that's how I -- my head starts spinning. And sometimes it's a little bit harder if -- you know, to create something if I'm not really looking at something, you know? It's the same thing going to the market. If I go to a market, I see a bunch of food. I get a bunch of ideas. So books definitely help, and they give you good recipes and ideas for you -- for the home cook.

  • 12:52:07

    NNAMDIIt seems like food bloggers can't get enough of you. Whether it's Endless Simmer or Young and Hungry, you're always making news. How much do you pay attention to the blogosphere?

  • 12:52:16

    ISABELLAYou know, I pay attention to everything that goes on. You know, I want to be a part of -- you know, with the local bloggers and with everything that goes on and keep everyone posted because they -- you know, they've been -- they've treated me well over the years, you know. And, you know, everyone has a disagreement here and there, doesn't agree with something or might not take it 100 percent. But, you know, I listen, and I try to take things in, you know...

  • 12:52:39

    NNAMDIDo you think bloggers have changed how or where people eat or changed how they view the whole restaurant experience?

  • 12:52:45

    ISABELLAI do. I do. I do think bloggers have a big part in the community, you know, because people follow blogs, you know? I mean, that's what it is. If they hear good things from multiple bloggers, they're going to try to probably come to your restaurant. If they hear multiple bad things, then it could hurt your business a little bit, but...

  • 12:53:03

    NNAMDIYou've also said that TV has helped the restaurant industry. How so?

  • 12:53:07

    ISABELLAI mean, when you have millions of people viewing you on TV and watching your food and you inspire them on cooking, you know, people want to come taste what they could -- what you do, you know? And, for me -- you know, there was a line out the door when we opened up Graffiato, and you can tell from -- I put a couple of dishes on from the show on the menu. Those were my top-selling dishes, so you knew they were fans.

  • 12:53:26

    ISABELLAAnd people want to taste what you have to offer. So, yeah, TV helps a lot. I mean, it's an -- you know, all press is good press, I guess, but it's definitely a positive thing to be on TV.

  • 12:53:36

    NNAMDIOn to Bill in Burke, Va. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:40

    BILLOh, good afternoon, Kojo and chef. Pleasure to talk to you, gentlemen. Question for the chef. You mentioned buying things Vermont. I was wondering what sort of stuff you get and from where.

  • 12:53:52

    ISABELLAWell, we get some cheeses from there. We get our flour from there. We get honey from there sometime. We get our maple syrup from there. So, you know, one of my chefs used to live in Vermont, and so she's got some contacts out there. So she's been kind of pulling that stuff in, especially in season, you know, with some of the jams and things like that we play around with with our brunch items. It's definitely fun, but, you know, cheese is probably the biggest thing for us and flour.

  • 12:54:21

    NNAMDIBill, thank you very much for your call. We've got time for one more. That would be Phil in Fort Detrick, Md. Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:29

    PHILGood afternoon, gentlemen. Thanks for taking my call. I have a question for chef. I make a good salmon and horseradish, smoked salmon on the grill. And I was wondering -- two things. How can I spice up the salmon while I smoke it? And, also, what's a good wine and a good side dish to go along with the meal?

  • 12:54:53

    ISABELLAOh, I mean, to spice up the salmon, I would do more of some type of, like, chili rub, you know, mixed chilies, or you can buy it rubbed at the store that has, like, a couple of different flavors inside of it. But, I mean, you know, rub the fish, totally cover it, you know, and then season it with some salt. And that's a good way to definitely spice it up. And to go with something for, like, a salmon with horseradish, I think a great pinot noir would be great with that. It's a lighter red wine.

  • 12:55:21

    ISABELLAIt's awesome grape. Probably some of the best pinots come from Oregon. You know, that's what I would recommend on a nice summer evening.

  • 12:55:30

    NNAMDIAnd good luck to you, Phil. Mike Isabella, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck on Bandolero.

  • 12:55:35

    ISABELLAThank you very much. It's a pleasure being here.

  • 12:55:37

    NNAMDIMike Isabella is executive chef and owner of Graffiato. He is being -- his Bandolero will be opening on M Street in Georgetown pretty soon. You might want to check it out. But first, thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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