PART THREE – KICKIN’ IT NEW/OLD SCHOOL
The thing that struck us about Drago Centro — Celestino Drago’s new, northern Italian eatery smack in the middle of downtown Los Angeles — besides the other-worldly pastas, the spot-on food and wine pairings of sommelier Michael Shearin, the packed house, cool design, and the smart move of having Matteo Ferdinandi (formerly of Spago Las Vegas) as Owner/Manager — was how inexpensive it was.
Appetizers ran $12-$20, pastas about the same, i.e., less than $20 a serving, mains were almost all well under $30, and the porter house for two (a steak that Las Vegans get routinely gouged for in excess of a hundred buckeroonies) was $75. And did we mention the place is on the ground floor of a fancy office building in downtown L.A.?
The other thing we noticed in our two days in L.A. was the renaissance its downtown is undergoing. In the early ’90’s, ELV did quite a bit of business in central L.A., and back then a neutron bomb going off after 6 P.M. wouldn’t have killed more than a few people.
These days, every corner of Flower, Figueroa and Grand Streets seems to have a loft or other re-gentrifying building going up. Boutique hotels have also sprung up (The Orchid, The Standard et al), and surprise surprise, there are actual choices of good bars and restaurants where before there were only monotonous office buildings or, even worse, empty, worn out shells. In other words, finally L.A. is getting a street life — something we never thought we’d see in our lifetime. After decades of selling their souls to the cult of the automobile, Los Angelenos are (Maybe? Finally?) discovering the joys of actually walking to and from where they eat and sleep, and no matter what the cultural and economic reasons, an improvement in the quality of life in this city is a certainty.
Those cheap prices combined with the sleek decor and upscale crowd didn’t dent our enjoyment of the place either. This recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights DC’s opening, but mentions that it has been a graveyard at dinnertime. Au contraire mon frere! The Thursday night we dined there, Drago Centro was packed to the rafters and SRO at the bar.
Perhaps they were coming for Drago’s legendary pastas, like his buckwheat noodles with cabbage, potatoes fontina, and sage cream, oxtail ravioli vaccinara (“butcher”) style with celery root, or a risotto with red beet puree and spot prawns. One look of his menu, divided into “fresh egg pasta,” “filled and baked pasta,” “hard durum wheat pasta,” and “risottos” tell you you are in the land of pasta perfection — with nary a boring or has-been dish in sight. (Are you listening Vegas Italian restaurants? No, they’re not* and probably never will.)
Even before we got to our pumpkin cannelloni with hazelnut butter, Drago (Drah-go) had dazzled us with its venison and langoustine carcpaccios — each the pure expression of its main ingredient with a minimum of fussiness. Then it was on to the those noteworthy noodles and finally a lamb osso buco that, at $26, would’ve been satisfying at twice the price.
All of these were accompanied by pour after pour of Italian wines that made every dish sparkle — courtesy of sommelier Shearin (late of Guy Savoy and DJT — two venues that made him more than a match for these food and wine matches).
It’s easy to pick on Vegas for not being someplace else, and ELV usually disdains those who practice this shooting fish in a barrel form of criticism, but leaving Drago Centro, all we could mumble to ourselves is why LV can’t have more innovative, Italian cuisine, at a popular price, cooked by and for people who appreciate it.
Prices here are practically at 1997 levels. Dinner for two with a modest wine can be had for under $150 — or roughly half what Mario Batali is charging for similar food in our humble burg.
525 S. Flower St.
Los Angeles, CA 90071
* By way of example, ELV and The Official Number Two Son of ELV had lunch on Friday at STRATTA ……along with two of his friends. A pedestrian pizza and four pastas were ordered: veal-stuffed cannelloni in a bechamel sauce (pretty good); penne puttanesca with shrimp (not spicy or piquant in the least); pappardelle bolognese (way too much meat sauce and way too little flavor), and a watery, limp, risotto (supposedly with guinea hen and wild mushrooms but with no discernible flavor of either). The bill for four came to $165 — including two glasses of $16 wine and a $28 tip. Aside from the portion size and the price (with the exception of the cannelloni, all pastas were priced in the 20’s), there was nothing memorable about a single bite.