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Mike Isabella OFF TO THE RACES

May 3, 2013
Photo by Greg Powers

We hear “the Preakness,” and think “horses.” Mike Isabella hears “the Preakness,” and thinks “crabs.”

The former Top Chef star is billed as the celebrity chef for the famous horse race this May. With the event’s emphasis on farm-to-table food, it makes sense that the DC-based toque has Maryland’s fresh seafood on his mind.

“I’ll obviously be serving crab,” says Isabella. “An outdoor event in Maryland? You have to have crab.”

Baltimore’s the Preakness Stakes, leg two of the Triple Crown race lineup, follows the Kentucky Derby and precedes the Belmont Stakes. The Maryland Jockey Club, the host of what has been dubbed “the world’s largest farm-to-table dining experience,” asked Isabella to create the menu for the event. He’ll be serving 6,000+ people in the corporate and VIP tents.

“This is the largest group I’ve ever had to serve at one time,” says Isabella. “For sure.”

In addition to Chesapeake crab, diners can expect to see lots of dishes from Isabella’s cookbook, Crazy Good Italian. Think roasted cauliflower, coffee-rubbed beef, and risotto balls with broccoli rabe. Isabella will be selling the cookbook at the event for folks that want to take his dishes home with them.

“I’ve got to keep in mind that people want to eat my food, whether it’s from my shows, my book, my restaurants, or dishes from my childhood,” says Isabella. “So you can definitely expect to taste some familiar flavors there.”

Photo by Greg Powers

Isabella is developing the crab dish and a beef dish specifically for the event, however. Other offerings include dessert and a raw bar with oysters from Hoopers Island. Is Isabella nervous about pulling off such a large-scale event?

“Nervous? No. More like excited,” he says. “Once a year, all of these politicians, athletes, and celebrities congregate at this fun and exciting event. I just have to make sure the food matches the excitement, the festiveness of the day.”

Isabella has little reason to worry—he’s proven himself in kitchens on TV and in the District. The New Jersey native was a season six standout on Top Chef and the runner-up of the Top Chef All-Stars season. His popular Penn Quarter eatery, Graffiato, has been bustling since its debut in 2011.

“We have our two-year anniversary coming up. We were really busy when we opened and we’re really busy now,” says Isabella of the Italian spot. “I truly believe part of our success is our focus on local ingredients.”

Isabella’s also big on fresh fare at Bandolero, the Georgetown restaurant he serves as partner of.

“I’m in charge of the food, the staffing, and the design,” he says of the modern Mexican joint. “I’m working on other concepts right now, so I’m not there as much lately, but I was there every day last summer.”

Isabella says he looks forward to brainstorming dishes that spotlight watermelon, tomatoes, and corn with Bandolero’s chef, Tony Starr.  The other projects keeping Isabella so busy are Greek concept, Kapnos, and Italian sandwich shop, G. These will be his third and fourth restaurants in Washington, DC. Isabella estimates they’ll open in June and July of this year, respectively. Conveniently for him, they’ll open right next door to each other on 14th Street.

With so many DC restaurants to run, does Isabella see himself expanding his culinary empire beyond the capital anytime soon?

“Like I said, Graffiato just hit its two year mark and Bandolero is coming up on one year. I spent a lot of time establishing them and making them great and I want to do the same for my next two,” he says. “So yeah, I see myself staying in DC for now, making my places really special.” “But down the road? Absolutely, I’d love to open new restaurants in new cities.”

 [Note: “Down the road” is looking to be sooner rather than later—after this interview, Isabella announced plans to open an Italian spot in his home state of New Jersey.]

One element from Graffiato that Isabella is likely to try at his new places is something he’s dubbed Industry Takeover Night. On the first Monday of every month, Isabella lets other notable chefs come into his kitchen and cook whatever they want for his diners. The food is served family-style—and is free.

“Takeover Night is our chance to give back to the city with lots of good, free food and discounted drinks,” says Isabella.
  Lots of chefs have taken their turn at the Graffiato stove in the past few years.

“I’ve had chefs from Pittsburgh, DC, Boston, Baltimore, and other places come in,” says Isabella. “I extend invites to the out-of-towners, but lots of locals have volunteered to come by and cook on their own.”

Isabella lists a February meal prepared by Chef Erik Bruner-Yang from Toki Underground as one of his favorite Takeovers. He’s also looking forward to May’s Takeover, featuring a husband-and-wife pair set to cook fried chicken and doughnuts.

“I’m hoping to have the winner and finalists from Top Chef in the fall or early next year,” reveals Isabella.

Isabella has remained close with his former Top Chef cast mates, many of whom have ended up in or around the District.

“I see Bryan [Voltaggio, of Range and Family Meal] and Spike [Mendelsohn, of Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza] all the time. I live down the street from Spike. They’re great guys, and I love what they’re doing,” says Isabella. “Carla [Hall, of ABC’s The Chew], I see here and there at events and stuff. But she’s filming up in NYC most of the time.”

But what about Isabella’s most famous Top Chef moment? No article about him is complete without mentioning a key ingredient: his beloved pepperoni sauce.

Isabella’s concocted the much-talked about sauce in the finals of Top Chef All-Stars and serves it on top of chicken wings at Graffiato. Can the Preakness attendees expect to sample it come May 18?

“I’m not as excited about my pepperoni sauce as everyone else is. I see it every day,” says Isabella. “But the people love it, so yes, it’ll be there.”

Count us in.

The 138th annual Preakness Stakes will be held on Saturday May 18.
Pimlico: 5201 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, MD; 410-542-9400;
Graffiatio: 707 6th St., NW, 202-289-3600;
Bandolero: 3241 M St., NW; 202-625-4488;