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Following Celestino

Another Drago Brother Ventures Out, Offering an All Too Familiar Menu

April 14, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

When a restaurateur takes over an existing establishment, few can resist gutting the restaurant and starting over. It's not uncommon for $3 million to be spent on a make-over. And if that place fails, somebody else will come along with a vision for turning the ill-fated site into a golden goose.

Celestino Drago's youngest brother, Giacomino, is shrewder than many. When he decided to go off on his own, the younger Drago, who is chef at his brother's pasta place, Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills, simply moved into the short-lived Le Stelle on South Beverly Drive and opened for business.

Aside from the new name, the only changes I can detect at Piccolo Paradiso are the still photographs from the Italian film "Cinema Paradiso" that now paper alcoves that once held bottles of wine. Other than that, the simple, contemporary decor is the same. The Italian hosts at the door are crisp and professional, quick to remember a face and a name. The phone keeps ringing. The reservations keep arriving, filling the tables with mostly regulars from Il Pastaio or Celestino Drago's flagship restaurant, Drago in Santa Monica. Chef and owner Giacomino Drago, resplendent in a snowy white chef's jacket and colorful vegetable-print pants, also greets guests at the door. "Where have you been? I haven't seen you at Il Pastaio in a while," he asks guests, turning on the charm he shares with Celestino. It's a big part of the Drago brothers' success. Where Celestino goes, three of his brothers have followed, from Sicily to America, and the restaurant business.

Though it's only a few blocks from Il Pastaio, Piccolo Paradiso (which Giacomino owns with partners other than Celestino), offers the same style of food and even some of the same dishes you'd find at any of Celestino Drago's three restaurants.

Giacomino is out to make his name. Gift baskets filled with bottles of olive oil and marinara sauce bearing his portrait in miniature sit by the door. And when the waiter, always Italian, lists the specials, he'll also mention that the chef will make a menu for the table, if you like. What would it be? Giacomino's the artist, he answers, with a flourish. But the waiter does give us a few hints. They're pretty much dishes on the menu. We'll order a la carte, thank you.

After 14 years in Los Angeles, the youngest Drago knows his clientele. He has liberally sprinkled the menu with pretty salads, such as one of baby spinach with beets and cubes of chalky goat cheese in a pleasant balsamic vinaigrette. Or the antipasto called carpaccio di mele, which is fine, transparent slices of whole apple topped with a chiffonade of ruby-streaked radicchio, a little creamy Gorgonzola and a handful of walnuts. This may be the best appetizer on the menu.

The more traditional beef carpaccio is attractively scribbled with mustard dressing and garnished with a fistful of greens and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. And what's not to like about the burrata, that fresh white cheese with a heart of cream, accompanied by a tart, refreshing salad of true radicchio di Treviso and baby arugula?

Some of the other antipasti, though, aren't as appealing. Every time I've ordered the fried calamari, it has been limp and greasy. Melanzane alla parmigiana, that usually enticing Southern Italian dish of eggplant layered with tomato sauce and mozzarella, is heavy and also swimming in oil. And the promising-sounding salad "Isolana," described as Sicilian-style ratatouille, tastes as if it's been massaged with ketchup. It hasn't, but that's the unappetizing effect.

The surprise is how good the risotto is. Properly al dente, each grain of rice bathed in broth, it comes in several versions. The one I like best is made with Carnaroli rice from Piedmont, with local calamari and sea urchin. The briny richness of the sea urchin roe plays up the sweetness of the calamari and the plainness of the rice. Risotto with slivers of smoked duck and spring asparagus tips is an excellent choice, too, but risotto di Donna Carmela is ruined by low-quality porcini mushrooms that dominate the dish.

Tender little pillows of potato gnocchi are one of Italy's great treats. Here, Drago has tried to be too fancy, stuffing his gnocchi with mushrooms and napping them in a truffle "fondue." Minced black truffles must have been invited to the party for their looks alone; their nonexistent flavor has to be helped along with artificial-tasting white truffle oil.

As for pasta, it's safer to stick with the straightforward ones, such as spaghetti di Antonio Natale, attributed to the chef's father. It's the excellent Latini-brand pasta tossed with basil and cherry tomatoes, which are sauteed to give up their juice. Because he's added some tomato sauce, it's heavier than if just cooked with a little olive oil and the fresh tomato, but still tasty. A rich, meaty ragout of quail and porcini goes well with ribbons of inch-wide pappardelle. It's a great dish for a Chianti riserva or a Barbera.

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