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building a better steak

May 21, 2000|S. Irene Virbila

Celestino Drago is onto something. The Italian restaurateur responsible for Drago and Il Pastaio has come up with a whole new concept--the Italian steakhouse--thereby combining two of America's most popular dining choices. He's got the beef (more on this later), but he's also got appetizers, first courses, sides and desserts that you actually might want to eat.

Why be content with the clams casino or greasy onion rings of most American steakhouses when you can start with crisp, golden-fried calamari or intriguingly bitter grilled radicchio di Trevisano (the long one that looks like some exotic burgundy tulip) and pan-fried scamorza, a gently smoked mozzarella? It doesn't hurt, either, that you can enjoy the distinguished red wines of Piedmont and Tuscany with your steak.

Drago came up with this concept when L'Arancino ("little orange"), his West Hollywood Sicilian restaurant, didn't find enough of an audience. I remember the waiters patiently explaining Sicilian cuisine to diners who obviously felt more comfortable with something less exotic. It's a shame that that worthy restaurant (the one closest to Drago's heart) closed after a year. He redecorated the small, cozy dining room in a palette of warm colors and reopened as Celestino Italian Steakhouse. Since steakhouses everywhere seem to be packed virtually every night, this may be the magic formula.

Celestino's beef comes from the Midwest, but that's where the similarity with traditional steakhouse beef ends. Drago has a supplier bringing in USDA-certified Piedmontese beef raised in the Midwest. The beef, originating from a breed native to the northeastern corner of Italy, is prized for its flavor and for being naturally lower in fat and cholesterol than traditional beef. It's also raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.

Actually, hardly anybody eats beef as grilled steak in Piedmont. Grilling is just not part of the culinary tradition, as it is in Tuscany, for example. In Piedmont, every housewife's piatto forte--her strong dish or specialty, the one that she prepares for company--is brasato, or beef braised in Barolo. She might offer as an antipasti her version of carne cruda--hand-chopped veal or carpaccio seasoned with a few drops of olive oil and lemon.

Drago has given his menu a bit of a Piedmontese slant. It's not a gimmick. Piedmont has one of the best regional cuisines in Italy. So you can start with the region's famous bagna cauda--a "hot bath" of olive oil, garlic and anchovies kept bubbling in a copper chafing dish--into which you dip wedges of raw fennel, yellow bell peppers, celery stalks, radishes and other crudites. In Italy, you'd wash it down with the new Barbera and finish off an evening of feasting by poaching an egg in the remains of the sauce and shaving white truffle over it.

The grilled radicchio hails from Treviso in the Veneto. Shrimp with cannellini beans is delicious, too. There's also a graceful minestra di verdura, a mix of spring vegetables in a light broth with a little Parmigiano grated over it and that earthy Tuscan minestra, farro and borlotti bean soup. That's brown beans with farro, the nutty grain that's labeled spelt in health-food markets. Think of it as pasta e fagioli, with the chewy nuggets of grain standing in for the pasta. To be properly enjoyed, it should be garnished with a thread of olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. You won't believe mere beans can have this much flavor.

One night, though, the beans are still al dente. And a platter of the sauteed smoked mozzarella is inexplicably drizzled with aged aceto balsamico. My Italian friends turn to me, puzzled. The sweet, syrupy aceto balsamico has no business with scamorza, or even plain mozzarella.

But the bagna cauda meets with approval. "This is the true bagna cauda--just garlic, anchovies, olive oil--stop," says Enzo, my friend from Torino. "No butter, no cream, which is the new way of doing it in order to make it seem lighter."

Now for the beef. Sometimes the costata di bue (rib eye) seems to be the best cut, juicy and open in texture, with lots of deep beef flavor. The fiorentina is generally excellent, too. The portion for one is, incredibly, 20 ounces (for two, it's 32 ounces). While a true fiorentina is Chianina beef from val di Chiana in Tuscany, Drago's comes close to the ideal. A fiorentina has to be thick because it should be charred on the outside, while remaining blood rare within. Also, the filet, a cut I usually don't like much, is better than average. It's not as mushy as most, yet it's still juicy and flavorful.

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