When Home & Design last caught up with Mike Isabella at home, he had just finished a successful stint on Bravo’s “Top Chef ” and mused about opening a restaurant of his own some day.
Four years later, Isabella has opened not one but three DC hot spots—Graffiato, Kapnos and G. And in his spare time, he’s written a cookbook (Crazy Good Italian), inked deals on three more restaurants slated to open this year and moved to a larger apartment with wife Stacy and their chihuahua, Santino.
Despite his frenetic schedule, Isabella carves out time to relax and unwind in their comfortable residence, located just across the street from their former abode. Chopping a Greek salad in his open kitchen and living area where floor-to-ceiling windows frame dramatic city views, he explains, “I do travel and work a lot but whenever I’m not there, I’m here. It’s relaxing to have a place to come and chill. I grew up in Jersey and just love being in the city and having all the windows and getting that city feel.”
The couple was drawn to the two-bedroom apartment for its views and spacious layout. Soon after moving in two years ago, they outfitted it with transitional furniture, largely from Room & Board. Isabella often works from his home office in the mornings before heading to Graffiato a few blocks away for lunch service, then to Kapnos and neighboring G on 14th Street for dinner. He tries to get home in time for dinner with Stacy two or three nights a week.
The couple’s apartment is comfortable and inviting, whether the two are sharing a quiet dinner or entertaining family and friends. A voluminous sectional and chestnut-topped dining table easily accommodate groups of all sizes. “Stacy does all the cooking at home, though I might help out here and there,” Isabella says. “When you’re around it all the time you don’t always want to come home and cook.”
Stacy, who has a degree in hotel and restaurant management, tested all of the recipes for Crazy Good Italian (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012). Many of the photos in the book were staged around the large, granite-topped island in their own kitchen. The Isabellas customized the space by painting the backsplash and island steely blue-gray and swapping builder-grade lights for industrial-style pendants from Restoration Hardware.
As Isabella explains it, the cookbook mirrors his background and approach to cooking—mingling the flavors he’s enjoyed since childhood. “I grew up in a very Italian household but I used to eat a lot of different foods: Thai, Middle Eastern, curries. My palate was always a little bit different and that is reflected in the book. There are the classics that I learned from my mother, grandmother and aunts; others I cooked on ‘Top Chef’ and some are from Graffiato. Even though it’s Italian there’s yogurt here and feta cheese there. And a lot of lamb.”
It’s a fitting mix for a chef who presides over the Italian Graffiato as well as the Greek Kapnos. This spring, Isabella will open a second G in Nationals Park, serving his signature sandwiches in time for baseball season. In June, a new Graffiato opens in downtown Richmond in a soon-to-be renovated pool hall with high ceilings and old wood floors. “Richmond has a great nucleus of new chefs but it is up and coming, similar to DC when I came here seven years ago,” he says. And this fall, Isabella plans to open Kapnos Taverna on Wilson Boulevard in Ballston, Virginia. This homier version of its hip DC sister will serve Greek classics along with such tried-and-true favorites as taramasalata and spit-roasted meats.
As if running all these kitchens weren’t enough, Isabella manages to participate in a constant flurry of industry events, TV shows and more. He’s been invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York three years in a row. On April 23, he will host a James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour dinner at Kapnos, opening his kitchen to guest chef Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav, among others. Isabella will spar against Texas chef Tim Love in “Knife Fight,” a cooking competition on Esquire Network filmed in Los Angeles and scheduled to air April 15.
And on the first Monday of every month, Isabella hosts Industry Takeover Night at Graffiato. Starting at 10 p.m., local chefs and mixologists whip up special drinks and dishes; for $10, patrons can sample their creations till the wee hours with half the proceeds benefitting local charities. The March event—which spotlighted Isabella and other tattooed chefs who appeared in the book Eat Ink—raised funds for Maryland’s Oyster Recovery Partnership.
“Five years ago,” Mike reflects, “I was very excited to open my own restaurant and the culinary scene was really growing. It’s been cool to be a part of that growth.
“Today, we still have a lot on the horizon,” he adds. But this chef is taking things one step at a time. “If you think everything’s perfect, you’re in the wrong business. No matter how good you are, you always want to be better and there’s always something to evolve.”