Top Chef Throwdown: Mike Isabella’s Graffiato vs. Spike Mendelsohn’s We, The Pizza
Washington, DC is the home to restaurants belonging to two of Top Chef’s most popular former contestants, Mike Isabella and Spike Mendelsohn, and a recent visit to the chefs’ eateries proved that one may need to pack his knives and go (sorry, I couldn’t resist). I dined at Mendelsohn’s We, The Pizza and Good Stuff Eatery and Isabella’s Graffiato and how they measured up against each other was an outcome even I hadn’t predicted.
I will make the following disclaimers up front:
1. There are, obviously, a lot of variables that can factor into a restaurant’s day-to-day operations and those variables can be the difference between having a stellar night and a nightmarish one and who the hell am I–a mere food writer who’s never worked in a professional kitchen–to judge? Well, guess what? It’s my website, my rules. 🙂
2. The following match-up is inherently unfair because I only visited each restaurant once.
3. The match-up is totally skewed toward Spike because of my not-so-secret crush on him. Kidding. (Sort of.)
ROUND ONE – CHEF’S PRESENCE
Winner: Mike Isabella
Ask anyone and they will tell you that a chef’s presence in his/her kitchen can make a huge difference in the quality of the food and the overall tone of the kitchen itself. Being present in the restaurant is not the same as being present in the actual kitchen. That being said, Mike Isabella wins this round by default because Spike Mendelsohn was not present in either of his restaurants. However, it should be noted that Mike spent his time sitting in a booth playing on his iPhone and chatting and, let’s just say, judging from the quality of the night’s dishes, that time would have been better spent in the kitchen.
ROUND TWO – OVERALL VIBE
OK, this round might not be entirely fair. As you can see from the pictures, I visited Graffiato at night and We, The Pizza during the day which may have contributed to the vast difference between the restaurants’ overall atmosphere. I love DC at night and Graffiato exudes that typical city vibe–hip crowd, loud music, and packed to the rafters. Congrats Mike, Graffiato handily wins this round.
By the way, there’s nothing wrong with the atmosphere at We, The Pizza–it’s perfectly OK, but it tends to give off more of a ‘quick lunch spot’ vibe that’s suitable for its neighborhood. The only complaint? Turn on the damn air conditioner, Spike! With all the pizza ovens going, eating outdoors is a must.
ROUND THREE – PIZZA
Winner: We, The Pizza
Of course a place called We, The Pizza would have to win this round, right? Truthfully, Spike’s pizza barely edged out Graffiato’s–if Graffiato’s crust had been cooked all the way through in the center (cardinal sin, Isabella–cardinal sin), Spike’s slices would have lost this round. Though We, The Pizza uses local, farm fresh ingredients–as proudly displayed on the blackboard menu–the slices themselves, oddly, are nothing special.
ROUND FOUR – ARTISANAL DRINKS
Winner: We, The Pizza
Spike has a slew of artisanal sodas on his menu–all with yummy-sounding ingredients and I would have loved to try them all but, alas, I’m a ginger fanatic so opting for his take on ginger ale was a no-brainer. Kudos to him for serving a lightly sweetened but not treacly soda tinged with wide ribbons of ginger. At Graffiato, Mike serves a similar ginger soda but a heavy-handed addition of jalapeno takes the drink from spicy to mouth-burning–my resulting numb lips kind of ruined the experience for me.
ROUND FIVE – EXTRA CREDIT
Winner: Spike Mendelsohn/Good Stuff Eatery
I am well aware of how unfair it is to pit asparagus against a burger. Even in all its delicious glory, does asparagus ever stand a chance against a good burger? The answer is a resounding ‘hell no.’ Where Spike fails in his pizza-making, he more than makes up for it in the burger-making department–this burger was pretty damn special. This is another round that may not be completely fair; the charred asparagus with lemon aioli and hazelnuts was probably the best thing I ate at Graffiato but the burger was from Spike’s other restaurant Good Stuff Eatery not We, The Pizza. (I didn’t have time to try Mike’s other DC restaurant Bandolero.)
WINNER: Spike Mendelsohn/We, The Pizza and Good Stuff Eatery – 3
Overall, Spike Mendelsohn’s casual fare wins on many levels despite a misstep or two. He seems to know his niche and operates quite nicely in the fast casual arena; his menus aren’t overly complicated which means there’s less chance of error. Locally, burger fanatics are pretty excited that he just signed a lease to open an outpost of Good Stuff Eatery in Philadelphia–he just might give Shake Shack a run for its money.
Mike Isabella/Graffiato – 2
I was surprised (and disappointed) by Isabella’s execution; the above photos do not tell the whole dining story of my visit to Graffiato. I was excited to try the famed pepperoni sauce (remember the sauce that Top Chef judge Gail Simmons oohed and ahhed over?) but in its current incarnation, it tastes comparable to the third-rate dipping sauce that accompanies an order of cheesy breadsticks from your local pizza joint. A nearly raw-centered pizza, a plateful of ‘meh’ gnocchi and a dish of overcooked scallops atop a bitter kohlrabi purée certainly won’t have me rushing back to Graffiato any time soon.