A pleasant dining experience usually begins with the server’s warm welcome. An entertaining dining experience begins with an opening line like, “I don’t usually dress like this.” It was October 31, and the staff at Graffiato was clothed in leopard print minis and bejeweled t-shirts to play the cast of MTV’s hit series, Jersey Shore. While my good friend, Miss Zin, and I were looking to catch up over delicious food and wine, Snooki made sure we did not forget Halloween.
Graffiato is Mike Isabella’s Italian-inspired restaurant in the Chinatown neighborhood, serving small plates and artisanal pizzas. With roots in New Jersey, Isabella first made his mark in DC as executive chef at José Andrés’ Zaytinya. He became nationally known after kicking major culinary butt on the Bravo TV series, Top Chef. Isabella opened Graffiato in June 2011, followed by the modern Mexican Bandolero this past spring, and in the new year will launch two new Greek and Italian concepts in the 14th Street Corridor. I had stayed away from Graffiato after hearing all about their amazing glutenous pizza. But following a closer inspection of the menu and the encouragement of Miss Zin, I decided it was worth a try.
Miss Zin and I entered into a grungy, chic, atmosphere with exposed brick walls and chrome surfaces. A long bar lines the length of the downstairs, with a few unfinished wooden booths in the back. We were escorted upstairs to a larger dining room, too cold and oddly too bright. But the staff took a hint when we left our jackets on, and we soon warmed up. Snooki oriented us to the restaurant’s small-plate style, unique cocktails, and extensive domestic wine list. After disclosing my gluten allergy, she promptly summarized the gluten-free dishes, which she swears are also some of the best dishes on the menu. My heart sank after learning that my favorite trendy small plate, the brussel sprouts, are fried in the same oil as breaded items. But the large number of tempting options lifted my spirits. The pastas can easily be made with gluten-free noodles and the risotto is fair game as it comes. Graffiato does not attempt a gluten-free pizza option, disappointing yet somewhat admirable. With so many tasty dishes to choose from, why muddy the waters with a sub-par substitute. However, I do believe Isabella is capable of a g-free crust that would knock the pepperoni off the DC pizza industry. It’s an opportunity for the taking.
After sampling and settling on a couple of glasses of red, the food starting rolling in. Oversized stems of broccoli rabe were decorated with golden raisins, parmesan shavings and pinenuts, offering a fresh and crunchy start. The soft and creamy Burrata is a must-try, garnished with sweet asian pear slices, crunchy walnuts, and salty pickled cauliflower. The Seared Scallops with fig, chard and radish, were perfectly golden on top and silky through the middle. More meaty is the Crispy Lamb, generously portioned and complimented with a cool greek yogurt. The colorful octopus dish is a chef favorite, almost too beautiful to eat. Large, lightly charred octopus arms are sprinkled with green olives and sit on an unusual potato and black garlic puree.
Each dish, whether delivered by JWoww, The Situation, or Pauly D, arrived with verbal assurance of being gluten-free, a much appreciated gesture for those of us who have been victims of short-term memory loss among restaurant staff. After a whirlwind of plates and two more glasses of vino, Miss Zin and I found ourselves stuffed, just as Isabella’s Italian-American grandmother intended. Perhaps a table filled with pasta and pizza would have been more Jerseylicious, but our meal was definitely fist-pump worthy.