Chef Mike Isabella is conquering the Mediterranean faster than the Holy Roman Empire. After his 2011 second-place finish in Top Chef: All-Stars, Isabella returned to his ethnic roots, ruling the niche of chef-inspired, homey Italian with the three-year-old D.C. small-plates restaurant Graffiato and his recently opened G Grab and Go sandwich shop in Edison, New Jersey. Graffiato’s velvety sweet corn agnolotti (a seasonal dish that made its return recently), Jersey Shore pizza (an unexpected fried-calamari pie with a charred crust and sharp provolone) and pepperoni sauce (the judges’ favorite dish of the entire Top Chef: All Stars season) have earned Isabella a lot of buzz.
Now, he returns to his culinary training roots, Greek food, with this month’s opening of Kapnos on the hot 14thStreet strip in D.C. Another Isabella Italian spot opening on July 26, G, will serve sandwiches by day and a four-course Italian tasting menu at night. We sat down with Isabella to discuss his culinary expansion, his pig-face sandwich entry in the Grand Cochon 555 competition and why he can’t sleep at night.
Greek food is a rising culinary trend right now. Is this a comeback for a millennia-old cuisine?
It’s not a comeback; it’s just being rediscovered. At Kapnos, we’re taking Greek to the next level. If you visit the 10 best-known Greek restaurants in America, 80 percent of their menus are the same. My menu will not be like those; Kapnos dishes are my takes on Greek food. I’ll use the classic ingredients — tomatoes, feta, figs, olives — in different ways. I didn’t want to open a Greek restaurant and have people think it’s just like Zaytinya [José Andrés’ Greek spot where Isabella was executive chef years ago]. I’m trained in Greek cuisine, so that’s what I really enjoy doing, in modern ways.
Kapnos will roast whole animals in an open kitchen, a style that’s rising in popularity. Is it a challenging prospect?
The word kapnos is Greek for “smoke,” and smoke will be a huge influence in the restaurant, with all of our wood-fired cooking. We’ll have spits with whole suckling pig, lamb, goat and chickens roasting, and groups of 10 can order a whole animal for the table. You can watch them being roasted and carved.
Speaking of whole animals, how was competing at Grand Cochon 555?
I competed in D.C.’s local Cochon 555 [part of a national pig-cooking competition] and won, so I was off to the nationals in Aspen. I didn’t win, but I had a fun time in the city, and it’s the best festival; the who’s who of the food world is there. The challenge is to use different parts of the pig in unexpected ways, so one of my entries was a pig-face sandwich. I braised the pig’s head and crisped up the meat, then topped it with an Italian gravy, stracciatella cheese and basil. Andrew Zimmern was a judge and said my pork belly taco was the best overall dish of the competition.
Will we see a pig-face sandwich on the menu at G sandwich shop when it opens next month?
You never know. It won’t be on the regular menu, but we’ll tweet out weekly specials and my Cochon dishes might be on there. You’ll have to follow us on Twitter to find out.
You held a G pop-up on the first floor of Graffiato back in May. How did people respond to the sandwiches?
People were digging it, and doing the pop-up was a great opportunity to make the sandwiches better. Restaurants take time to develop personality. My sister and brother-in-law run G Grab and Go in New Jersey, and they’re developing a deli that’s a little more gourmet and artisanal, with a chef’s sensibility. At nighttime, G will turn its 40 seats into a tasting-menu restaurant and the menu will change every two to three days or so.
What’s your plan for the beverage program at Kapnos?
Smoke is in our beverage program, too. We’ll grill our lemons over wood every morning, get them charred and smoky for our grilled lemonade, which is one of our three housemade lemonades that we’ll have kegged up and on tap. We’ll offer a hard lemonade, too, one with a vodka or rum base — it will change all the time. And a fruity lemonade, like watermelon. The wine list will have some Greek wines and Italian, Spanish and other Mediterranean styles. There will be about 15 specialty cocktails and housemade sodas like the ones we have at Graffiato.
Opening two restaurants with different culinary styles at the same time sounds like a ton of work, even if they are right next door.
I don’t sleep at night! I’ve been working on the Kapnos concept since before I was at Zaytinya, and I’ve been looking at the space for two years. The style of the space is northern Greek, Byzantine, with lots of different levels of dining rooms [a small, 10-seat bar overlooking the grills; a 50-seat bar next to the main dining room; and the main space is wrapped around an open kitchen] so I want to get this right, because there will probably be more Kapnos locations in the future. Probably more G locations, too.
Have you enjoyed promoting your first cookbook, Crazy Good Italian?
It’s great. I’m super stoked it was just chosen for Food & Wine’s Best of the Best: The Best Recipes from the 25 Best Cookbooks of the Year. I’m in there with recipes by Thomas Keller and Ming Tsai, so to be included among those chefs is a real honor.
Could there be a Kapnos Greek cookbook in the future?
I’ve got a lot going on now, but I want to write a Greek cookbook. It’s another year or two away. I have lots of plans.
Photos Courtesy of Greg Powers