Before opening a restaurant empire featuring a coming-in-2017, 10-concept food emporium called Isabella Eatery in Fairfax, Va., Mike Isabella grew up in Little Ferry, New Jersey. And, like many Jersey boys, he spent summers visiting the Jersey Shore. Last year he hosted a Jersey Shore-themed menu for about a week at the Washington D.C. Graffiato location and this year he brought the concept back in late June. For the first time, he’s also offering a Jersey Shore menu at his Graffiato Richmond location from July 21-31 so Southerners can enjoy a taste of Northern summer cuisine. I got to sample most of the menu at a media preview last night. You can look forward to a combination of favorite dishes from the D.C. menu alongside original creations from Richmond Chef de Cuisine Matthew Robinett.
As I walked in, I was greeted with a Pain Killer cocktail served in an adorable pink coconut cup. Isabella explained the cup, saying it’s not exactly the big, sweet fishbowl cocktails with a bunch of straws he might have imbibed during his younger days at the shore, but it’s a nod to the old days. The flavor combination of Kokola Coconut Rum, Smith & Cross Rum, pineapple juice, orange, banana and nutmeg poured over a pleasing mound of crushed ice took me back to my recent Jamaica vacation but was more well balanced and flavorful than any drink my Jamaican resort whipped up for me. The rest of the cocktail menu features other summer favorites, including a high-end strawberry daiquiri, a Mai Tai, a passion fruit margarita, even two slushies and some shooters.
I also sampled the Watermelon Slushy, which combines Reyka Vodka, watermelon, lime, mint, and black pepper agave for a tart, citrusy summer sipper.
Our meal started with cool seafood salad, featuring shrimp, clams, snap peas, Calabrian chili aioli, chives and house-extruded pasta. The salad had a creamy base that on first glance took me back to the retro pasta salads of childhood picnics, but the flavor was light and pleasant with a nice zip from the chili aioli. If you like cold pasta dishes, I’d suggest trying this one while you can.
Of course, you can’t serve a Jersey Shore menu without some version of boardwalk fries, so up next we sampled Graffiato Boardwalk Fries featuring thick-cut Idaho potatoes topped with rich pancetta chili and fresh mozzarella. This dish took a fun, fresh take on a traditional dish with the deep flavors of the pancetta chili sauce.
After that, instead of the more traditional Jersey clams, we got Isabella’s take on Oysters Rockefeller with baked oysters smothered in a generous combination of spinach, bacon, Strega and fonduta. The Strega provided a nice hint of licorice and the fonduta cheese held it all together, making for melty, baked goodness.
Along with the ever-popular Jersey Shore pie topped with fried calamari, tomatoes, provolone and cherry pepper aioli that’s always available on the Graffiato menu, we also sampled chef Robinett’s “Jersey” Tomato Pie. Made in the style of Trenton tomato pies where the cheese and toppings are put on before the tomato sauce, this pizza was first topped with a pungent combination of mozzarella, provolone, fontina and Parmesan cheese, then finished with tomato sauce. I have always loved the crackly, crisp crust created by Graffiato’s pizza oven, and this dish was one of my favorites on the menu. The cheese on the bottom got deliciously melty and the sharp flavors combined perfectly with the tomato sauce for simple pizza bliss. I’ll probably have to get this one more time before the menu goes away.
Yes, this was a lot of food, and no we weren’t finished yet. Next, lightly breaded skate picatta arrived covered with plenty of zesty lemon sauce, capers, and toasted almonds accompanied by roasted broccoli rabe. I’ve always been a fan of classic picatta flavors on chicken and veal, and the bright lemon and caper flavors were really able to shine when combined with the more delicate skate flavors.
Next, veal Parmesan took me back to my home town of Pittsburgh where this was a menu staple. Isabella told us he chose to add the dish to this menu because growing up his family would always order pizza and sandwiches on Friday nights and his go-to was the veal parmesan hero. The hand-cut spaghetti really made the dish with its toothy, al dente texture.
And, the third pasta dish of the night was another classic favorite of mine: linguini and clams. Little neck clams were combined with fresh linguini and covered in a rich chili-parsley-white-wine sauce. With the Graffiato spin, the sauce had a richer, more complex flavor than some other versions I’ve tried, giving a classic dish a nice revamp.
For dessert we sampled one of my all-time Graffiato favorites: zeppole with fresh blackberry sauce made from Agriberry blackberries. Isabella said that as a boy he’d go to a fair in his home town and purchase freshly-fried zeppole, indulge while walking around, and get covered in powdered sugar. As a result, the zeppole at Graffiato are served in a paper bag. When fresh from the kitchen, these fluffy fried dough balls are basically little pillows of heaven. I can’t resist the perfectly light, airy texture and flavor.
Make sure to stop in and check out this special menu for a fun taste of summer in New Jersey. Go here to make a reservation online.