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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Drago Centro in downtown L.A.

The restaurant with the inspired Italian menu might be downtown L.A.'s best-kept secret. Find it and you'll go back again and again.

February 11, 2009|S. IRENE VIRBILA | RESTAURANT CRITIC

Seriously, what is wrong with this town? If Celestino Drago, one of the best-known Italian restaurateurs in Southern California, can't get a crowd for his most ambitious restaurant yet, and a very glamorous one at that, then what? The fact that Drago Centro's location -- downtown L.A. -- may be outside the comfort zone of his fan base shouldn't be a deterrent for more intrepid Italophiles.

This is a seriously good restaurant that exudes urban chic. It's got views, a glamorous setting, a private dining room with a demonstration kitchen in a former bank vault and, most important, the best Italian cooking in the area, and some of the best anywhere in L.A. But where are the crowds?

They're there at lunch as harried business people tuck into risotto with beets and shrimp or a warm pheasant and chanterelle main course salad. But at night, even on a weekend, the dining room is often sparsely populated, despite an inspired menu from Drago and chef de cuisine Ian Gresik.

Part of the problem is that the restaurant is set well back from the street, without a clearly visible sign. Worse, there's no valet station out in front on Flower Street, and just a tiny sign and driveway for self-parking. The valet station is actually behind the restaurant, on Figueroa -- from Flower, you have to drive two blocks south to make a right turn, then come back up Figueroa, all the while on the lookout for a dimly lighted valet station. If you miss it, start all over again. It's absolutely crazy-making, and I'm sure many people have just driven off in frustration.

Too bad, because the food is eminently worth the effort, even if just for the pastas. Take your pick from fresh egg pasta, grano duro (the dried variety), and baked and stuffed pasta dishes. And they're not the same dishes seen all over town.

The chef's Sicilian roots are evident in spaghetti alla chitarra (cut on a wooden box strung with wires to make a square spaghetti instead of round) tossed in pesto alla trapanese, referring to the northwestern coast of Sicily, where cooks use tomatoes and almonds pounded in a mortar and pestle to make "pesto." The firm pasta and gritty pesto are wonderful together, an example of country restraint. More sumptuous in style are the wide pappardelle noodles sauced with a roasted pheasant ragu enriched with morel mushrooms -- like something you'd get during hunting season in Tuscany or Umbria.

Splendid dishes

For me, the texture and heft of dried durum wheat pasta trumps more delicate egg pasta almost every time. Here, the kitchen makes a splendid dish of paccheri (something like stubby rigatoni) with delicate, sweet spot prawns in a classic puttanesca sauce -- a little tomato with olives, garlic, capers and anchovies. It's a quiet beauty. Garganelli, made by tightly rolling up squares of pasta dough on the diagonal, loses something with an overly generous pork sausage and fennel seed sauce: The balance is all wrong. But I do like the buckwheat pizzoccheri, buckwheat pasta with fontina cheese, cabbage and potatoes straight from the mountains. At least I like it when the weather is cold.

Gresik turns out a fine oxtail ravioli too. But the most interesting stuffed pasta dish is something called pane frattau sardo, paper-thin Sardinian bread baked with layers of tomato sauce, salame, egg yolk and dots of pecorino cheese. It's served very hot in a rectangular cast iron skillet and looks something like lasagna -- and is just as rich, almost too much so.

The menu offers some fine antipasti as well: a bowl of steamed mussels with lemon, garlic and lots of cracked black pepper, venison carpaccio with walnuts in a svelte sherry vinaigrette or a silken foie gras creme caramel to spread on bread. House-made mozzarella, however, is not the revelation you'd expect: The milk maybe doesn't have enough flavor. The real star on the antipasti list is langoustine carpaccio, its briny sweetness set off by a few pomegranate seeds and a squeeze of lemon.

Salads bypass Caesar or tricolore in favor of one that's composed of grilled artichokes and Belgian endive garnished with whole pistachios in Drago's kiss-off to foam, a sabayon made with extra virgin olive oil. My favorite, though, may be the panzanella with cubes of heirloom beets tossed with crunchy croutons, basil leaves and thinly shaved truffled pecorino. A winter version of summer's tomato and cucumber panzanella, if you will.

Between bites, take a moment to savor Stanley Felderman's design. Drago has always had a taste for contemporary design, since Drago, his Santa Monica flagship, opened in 1991 and made every other Italian restaurant around look distinctly old-fashioned. His new restaurant makes even more of a statement. It should: The budget was $7 million.

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