Location: 2628 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90403. T: 310/828-1585
Date: December 31, 2011
Rating: One of LA’s top Italians – but closing
Celestino Drago and his brothers have a bit of a mini Italian culinary empire here in LA with a number of different restaurants and concepts. These include the flagship Drago, a branch in Pasadena, Il Pastiao, Enoteco Drago and Piccolo Paradiso in Beverly Hills, Drago Centro downtown, Panzanella in the valley, a bakery, catering, and probably something I missed. All of these places are top notch and despite the expansion there is a real attention to quality.
Originally from Sicily the family blends tradition with the modern to make some of LA’s best Italian. Having eaten all over Italy I have to say that the two areas with the best food are in my mind the Piedimonte/Venato and Sicily. And the later wins hands down for desserts. Celistino doesn’t purely stick with Sicilian cuisine anyway, but very much pulls in the latest Italian culinary trends. In particular, the pastas, usually homemade, are phenomenal.
He’s also incredibly creative and adaptable. He’s catered about 8 or so of our events and that includes some whacky stuff. In 2006 we even did a party themed after the Ancient World where all of the dishes were based on the ancient Roman cookbook by Apicius. I just gave Celistino a copy with circled dishes and he adapted these VERY OLD (1900 years old!) recipes and brought them to life. Very interesting.
Anyway, Drago is the flagship restaurant of the empire, and its most formal. They have a big Menu well represented in every category, including good hearty meaty dishes. Certain favorites persist, but it’s always being adapted and changed (something I like), and includes seasonal stuff.
We went here for our last meal of 2011 and they had New Year’s supplements in addition to the normal menu.
Unfortunately, despite the food quality remaining high, business has slipped off at this particular branch of the empire and so it is rumored to be closing soon.
Being New Years, I brought some excellent (even by my standards) wines. Parker gives this 98 points. “The dense ruby/purple-colored 1997 Percarlo is compelling. Enormous in aromas, flavors, and persistence on the palate, it exhibits profound levels of concentration as well as unbelievably dense, black currant, blackberry liqueur notes infused with new saddle leather, licorice, truffles, and toasty oak. Enormously thick and viscous, with low acidity, and mouthcoating levels of extract, this wine’s tannin level is high, but largely obscured by the wealth of fruit, glycerin, and extract. It is an amazing accomplishment! Anticipated maturity: now-2020.”
“INSALATA DI BARBABIETOLE E BURRATA. Burrata, market beets, arugula, pistachio, fried shallots, white balsamic vinegar.” Most Italians have a beets and burrata these days, but this way a particularly good one with a very interesting sweet dressing.
“TORTELLONI DI ZUCCA. Mussels, clams, bay scallop, shrimp, squid, tomato sauce.” Another favorite and a Celestino classic. This is pumpkin ravioli in a parmesan cream sauce. Inside is a pure of pumpkin, slightly spiced. A homemade spinach pasta, and then a rich cream and cheese sauce. This is a varient on the truly tradition tortellini de zucca where a slightly smaller normal fresh pasta is used, and the stuffing mixes pumpkin and amaretti cookies, and then the sauce is just butter and sage. This version is richer obviously.
““Cavatelli al ragout di capriolo, venison and chanterelle ragout, chestnut.” This is one of the reasons I come here: for dishes like this. While this is a special, there are always many great pastas, and this is a level of pasta perfection that you WILL NOT find at 95% of LA’s Italians. This particular dish is a homemade larvae shaped Cavatelli (pasta perfection) coupled with this incredibly rich winter ragout. The chestnut adds a little crunch and further winter cheer — chestnuts being very popular/traditional in Italy in Dec/Jan. Stylistically I would have to say this is more a Roman or maybe mountains near Rome kind of dish than explicitly Sicilian, but I could be wrong. Doesn’t matter, it’s great.
“The 1989 Barolos include the 1989 Bussia Soprano, a huge, full-bodied, super-concentrated, powerhouse of a wine that exudes aromas of sweet black-cherries, truffles, spices, and some intriguing spring flower blossom scents. Extremely intense, full-bodied, and spicy, with oodles of rich, fleshy fruit, this profound wine possesses high tannin which is sweet rather than astringent, and a mindboggling finish. This awesome Barolo can be drunk at an early age, but it should keep for 25-30 or more years.
Every Italian wine authority, from the late Sheldon Wasserman, to Burton Anderson, to Victor Hazan, to Roberto Parkero, considers Aldo Conterno to be one of the great masters of his craft. The staggering display of wines he produced in 1989 and 1990 confirmed that no one in Piedmont is making greater Barolo than Aldo Conterno and his sons. If you love great wine, these are must purchases; if you love Barolo, a pilgrimage to your favorite Italian wine shop is in order!
It is virtually impossible to pick a favorite among Conterno’s 1989s and 1990s. However, the 1990s, which are not yet bottled, appear even more massive, structured, and tannic than the flamboyant, super-concentrated, flashy 1989s. Readers should keep in mind that the Barolo-Riserva Gran Bussia is released a year later than the other Barolos, so the 1989 will not appear in the marketplace until spring, 1995, and the 1990 a year later.
Wine enthusiasts throughout the world should be beating a path to their retailers to buy the 1989s and to reserve the 1990s when they arrive next year. By the way, Aldo Conterno is one of Piedmont’s sweetest people, proving that sometimes nice guys do finish first!”
“PETTO DI POLLO. Porcini prosciutto crust, potato pancake, prosciutto parmesan cheese cream, king trumpets mushrooms, pearl onion.” I don’t normally order chicken, but this one called out to me for some reason. The breast was perfectly cooked with a nice textural quality to the crust. I didn’t really detect the prosciutto, so I would have liked a bit more of a statement there, but it was very tasty.
This is only a small selection of what Drago can do and they have excellent deserts as well. But we had some at home for New Years and old three year-old was getting restless.