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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Think of Drago Without Entrees

January 16, 1994|LAURIE OCHOA

Il Pastaio is an Italian restaurant with no rosemary roasted chicken, no Florentine steak, no osso buco or herb-crusted whole fish. It's an Italian restaurant with no entrees.

By now, after something like 10 years in Southern California, Celestino Drago knows how we eat Italian food. He's seen customer after customer come into his Drago restaurant in Santa Monica and tell the waiter, "I'll just have a salad and some pasta."

So why not open a casual version of Drago and serve only pasta and appetizers? Piero Selvaggio had a similar idea at Primi, but eventually added substantial entrees to the menu. At Il Pastaio, where no reservations are accepted, the idea has caught on fast--the small, table-crammed room in the old Kaktus space in Beverly Hills is already jammed after just two weeks in business.

One reason: The pasta is very good. Garganelli , rustic-looking, like handmade flattened penne, comes sauced with a smoky version of an amatriciana sauce (pancetta, onion, tomatoes). Paglia e fieno is tender strands of green and white pasta with Sicilian pesto (that means it has tomatoes in it).

And there are terrific, correctly made risottos here--neither gummy, nor underdone. The risotto darkened with squid ink and combined with calamari, shrimp and scallops is especially nice.

To start, there are plenty of salads and a fine arancine --think of a crisp, cone-shaped risotto fritter. Drago has also included a selection of carpaccios--one of beef, one of swordfish, one of tuna. But the best might be the venison carpaccio, dressed with lemony greens and topped with crumbles of ricotta salata.

* Il Pastaio, 400 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 205-5444. Pasta and risotto $7.50-$12.50.

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