Most people will acknowledge the communal nature of eating, at least in theory. But, when eating out, it often becomes apparent that despite how obvious it might seem to even the most casual eater, restaurants often fail to facilitate the communal appeal of food. Plates are often awkwardly allocated around the table, patrons are placed out of each other’s reach and the portion sizes are not conducive to sharing. Moreover, college students, one of the groups most inclined towards sharing food, often seem to be neglected entirely by fine dining establishments, even in a city like Washington, D.C., where students make up a significant portion of the local population. One can see the logic of this decision: Students tend to have less disposable income, and we are only in residence part of the year. But this does not make it any less heartening to continually find restaurants that mistake a stodgy environment punctuated only by classical music or muted conversation as the only environment in which great food can be consumed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into Graffiato this past weekend to the loud and welcoming sound of Coldplay and engaged discussion.
Graffiato, Mike Isabella’s flagship Italian restaurant, is lively and unassuming. Isabella, who appeared on the sixth season of “Top Chef,” is well-known for his rocker vibe and novel take on haute cuisine, and both of these characteristics are on full display at Graffiato. The decor resembles that of many modern restaurants in its pared-down simplicity and elegance, opting for plain wooden and burnished steel furniture rather than more ostentatious furnishings. However, the decor belies the richness of the food on offer, which unlike the decor, favors complexity and sumptuousness.
Similar to Isabella’s Georgetown establishment Bandolero, the menu at Graffiato consists of a collection of small plates with the addition of slightly larger pizza options offered on the simple but varied menu. When a friend and I visited recently, our server recommended that we order several small plates in order to achieve the effect of a full meal, and based on my experience, this way is probably the best one to appreciate Graffiato’s menu. Perhaps the greatest difficulty at Graffiato, as at any restaurant with a great menu, is deciding what to eat. Eventually, after several minutes of careful deliberation over choices that included everything from parsnip soup with pumpkin seeds to charred octopus, we decided on a plate of baby beets, a selection of cheeses and cured meats, braised beef short rib, the White House pizza — which features mozzarella, taleggio, ricotta, prosciutto and black pepper honey — and, finally, lasagna with pork shank ragu.
The service was efficient, and I received my selection of cheeses and cures shortly after my friend began work on his beets. The plate, which consisted of two cheeses — a Hudson camembert and clothbound cheddar — and prosciutto di Parma, was a surprising highlight and delight. More than just solid staples, these selections from Graffiato were simultaneously original and satisfying in a way appetizers rarely are. Particular note must be made of the prosciutto, which was soft, perfectly marbled and just a little salty.
The pizza and short rib arrived in quick succession. In a matter of moments, my friend and I finished the pizza and then, without pause, made quick work of the beef short rib. The pizza, like the appetizers earlier, was a surprising delight, hiding rich honey beneath the top layers. The tender but rich beef short rib was paired perfectly with a smooth and creamy bedding of polenta. Finally, our lasagna arrived and, as the heartiest and richest of our courses, served as a fitting end. The ragu, which was similar to pulled pork, made for a richer and more sumptuous take on the Italian favorite.
Graffiato is a fantastic restaurant that combines the atmosphere of a Hard Rock Cafe with food that rivals the best in D.C. With prices that are more reasonable for college students than other restaurants with comparable cuisine, it is well worth a visit with a group who can appreciate jamming out to “Numb” by Linkin Park over a gourmet meal.