Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to eat at new Richmond restaurant Graffiato, from acclaimed Top Chef All-Stars Runner-Up Mike Isabella. After the success of Graffiato DC and on the heels of a three-year stint at Jose Andres’ Zaytinya and Top Chef fame, Isabella opened Graffiato Richmond on Sept. 10, and the restaurant has served a packed house nearly every night since. Located in the space formerly occupied by Popkin Tavern on Broad Street in downtown, the space is modern industrial with an open, airy feel.
Our reservation was for 7:30, and it took the hostesses a few minutes to get our table ready, but they were super nice and apologetic about the wait. No worries – rumor had it that even people with a reservation had had to wait upwards of 45 minutes during opening week, so our ten minute or so wait was no big deal.
The beverage list was full of innovative cocktails, like a jazzed-up Pisco Sour and an “RVA Gin and Tonic” made with local gin. Interesting wine choices make an appearance on the wine list, which is heavy on Greek and Italian wines (to go with the pizza and Mediterranean-influenced fare). Virginia vintages are also well-represented. The beer selections are a local beer acolyte’s dream: Hardywood, Center of the Universe, Strangeways, Lickinghole Creek, Ardent Craft and Devil’s Backbone are all offered, plus more from Virginia, DC and Denver. I had the “Put Me in Your Mix”: bourbon, amaro, orange, honey and hefeweizen. It was served with a long, thin shard of ice and a lemon slice, and was the perfect start to my Graffiato adventure.
Following the trend in fine dining restaurants, portions are small plates and intended for sharing. Our group was large enough that each of us ordered a few things and we all got to try different dishes throughout our meal. For starters, we had the broccolini with red pepper relish, walnuts and feta and the roasted cauliflower with pecorino, mint and red onion. Both were fresh and flavorful, with an innovative focus on vegetables rather than the bread or fried appetizers typical of most Italian menus.
We also tried the Cheese & Cure tray, which is served on a slab of slate with your choice of three or five cheeses and meats. Our group had the Bijou, a goat cheese from Vermont, the Bianco Sardo, a sheep’s milk cheese from Italy and the Italian Coppa, tender cured pork shoulder sliced thin. Smears of spicy mustard and a sweet apricot glaze rounded out the plate.
The menu boasted a bunch of gourmet wood-fired pizzas, and we tried the Greco Roman: black figs, goat cheese and tasso; the Jersey Shore: fried calamari, tomato, provolone and cherry pepper aioli; and the White House: mozzarella, taleggio, ricotta, prosciutto and black pepper honey. All three were phenomenal – I can’t even pick a favorite. The flavor combinations were creative, yet familiar. The crusts were baked perfectly. My only – minor – gripe was that the prosciutto on the White House pizza wasn’t quite as crispy-looking (or tasting) or as caramelized as the picture on the website. But it still tasted awesome.
There was a small mixup with our order of the hand cut spaghetti (with olive oil-poached cherry tomatoes and Thai basil), which resulted in it coming out last, but it was a delicious ending to our meal. The Thai basil is something I never would have thought to put with an Italian pasta dish, but it worked perfectly. These kinds of innovative tweaks to Mediterranean comfort food are the hallmark of Graffiato’s. Mike Isabella’s creative and well-executed menu puts the new Richmond location at the forefront of the city’s dining scene.
The verdict – 8.5 of 10 stars