What comes to mind when you think of Italy? For me, it’s the sun, the sea, and of course unique Italian cuisine, which is popular all around the world as well as right here in downtown LA.
I have been to Italy a few times, so when choosing from the Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, I am extremely picky, generally I go to Colori Kitchen, or the factory kitchen Downtown LA, but it was time to go somewhere new. My cousin was visiting from NY and the visit coincided with her birthday, so I wanted to take her somewhere special. Fortunately for us, the restaurant we wound up at was none other than Drago Centro Los Angeles.
If you have never been to Italy, you might think that pasta and pizza are all that Italians eat. Fortunately, you are very wrong. Italian food products including mozzarella cheese, Parmesan, and Gorgonzola; Italian dishes such as ravioli, polenta, and risotto; and Italian wines and aperitifs have earned this country a special place in the heart of every “foodie”.
Need good food advice? Ask an Italian!
I have quite a few Italian friends here in LA and it felt natural asking them for advice on a restaurant choice. Four out of five recommended Drago Centro for various reasons which I will name a little later. There was no reason not to trust their opinion on this one, and I immediately went to Drago Centro website to make a reservation. Unlike many other restaurants’ websites, there is no separate “reserve” page; instead, there is an online form at the bottom of their homepage, which I find very handy. It is also accessible through the contact page. It works easy and smoothly, like it should. There – Thursday night, table for two, done!
All roads lead to… Drago Centro!
Just like every other restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles, Drago Centro is in the middle of the action. The location on 525 South Flower Street makes it easy to find and hard to park at the same time. Well, locals know that finding a free parking spot in that area is mission impossible. Those of you who still want to try their luck, follow my advice and don’t waste your time. Drago Centro offers its clients valet parking, which is located in the underground area (level A) of the City National Bank Plaza. It costs 5$ to 7$ depending on the time and amount of hours spent. A fancy bonus is that if you park in this area, a special elevator will take you from the parking lot straight up to the restaurant. Being one of the best restaurants in LA, Drago Centro also offers its guests complimentary shuttle service to any of the events at the Staple Center, Nokia Theatre and the Music Center.
The Main Man, Celestino Drago
As much as I love travelling, I also like finding out things about interesting people. And since this evening I was going to spend at an Italian restaurant, I decided to do a little research and find out what makes it so special, at least in the eyes of my friends who recommended it. Well, one unusual fact I learned is that the owner of the place is also the chef. It rarely works this way in the restaurant business, but this kind of Caesar-style multitasking makes sense.
Celestino Drago was born and raised in Sicily, one of the most famous and somewhat mysterious regions of Italy. It is known not only for the Sicilian mafia, but more importantly, its local cuisine which combines traces of numerous cultures who have established themselves on this picturesque island over centuries. Together with its own traditional cuisine, Sicily absorbed the best of Greek, French, Spanish and even Arab culinary traditions. Celestino’s dishes and his cooking style are deeply rooted in his childhood, and one can only imagine what kind of emotional and flavorful mix it is. Being in charge of things in the kitchen, Celestino Drago knows better than anyone else what kind of experience the guests get when eating his food. That is exactly why Celestino’s staff is extremely professional, passionate about what they do and about Italian food. Every dish served is a masterpiece and they all take part in its creation.
Spacious yet romantic ambiance
As the elevator was taking us upstairs, I couldn’t wait to see the interior of Drago Centro and was hoping to get a feeling of Italy. Well, Italy it was, but not the kind of Italy you would imagine with its old architecture and Mediterranean design. Inside it looks more high class and fancy Italy with a hint of romance to it.
Yes, I can say that this is one of the fancy restaurants in LA, but not the kind you feel uncomfortable walking into if you are not driving a Maserati. As one of the best LA restaurants, it looks very spacious, modern, busy and romantic all at the same time. I think this unusual design does a perfect job helping to fit old culinary traditions into the urban setting of DTLA. The warm colors of the textiles and stone walls combined with marble, glass and metal made me think of Venice, but as if it was in the middle of the modern-day Los Angeles.
As we walked in, a hostess greeted us kindly and we found ourselves seated in a matter of seconds at a great table for two, close to the outside lounge area and with a view of the show kitchen. Yes, you heard it right. Drago Centro has a show kitchen in the middle of the restaurant. Guests are welcome to observe a beautiful process of culinary art and have a chance to evaluate it right away.
Our waiter showed up in 2 minutes with a pleasant surprise in the form of a drinks menu and a separate wine menu. You might wonder what can be that surprising in the drinks menu. Well, nothing, except for its size – the selection of wine and other drinks is quite extensive. To be honest, it made me feel very relaxed. If I decide to drink at a dinner, I love particular wines which are usually not available at most places I go to, so I end up sipping on soda or wine that I don’t particularly enjoy. I ordered a glass of Pinot Noir and my cousin went for Sauvignon Blanc. Our wine was served very fast so we could start enjoying the atmosphere and looking through the menu.
Learning the Language
Whenever I went to Italy, I promised myself to start learning Italian. Of course, I picked up some basic words during travelling, but this need felt urgent every time I went out to eat. A déjà vu happened to me at this fine LA restaurant. The names of the dishes were bringing me back to my amazing trips and awakening great memories, which I started sharing with my cousin. She was listening to my stories with excitement and couldn’t believe I suddenly decided to share all these great moments after looking at the menu. I think this describes the best how inseparable Italian culture is from its cuisine.
One of the best romantic restaurants downtown LA, Drago Centro, offers:
- Bar Menu: Parties of up to 17 people are always welcome at Drago Centro. Any of your happy occasions won’t go dull with such an extensive choice of aperitifs, whiskey, rum, and cocktails.
- Bar food menu: If you don’t feel like having a whole dinner at a fancy table, the bar area is at your service. Feel free to enjoy a variety of drinks and have a bite of le pork ribs, la pizza al pesto, i due kobe hamburgers or even le ostriche.
- Lunch menu: Given the location, Drago Centro offers fine dining downtown Los Angeles during lunch hours. You can make up your lunch of an appetizer (per cominciare“to begin”), order le insalate “the salads” and add la pizza “the pizza”, i pesci “fish”, le carni “meat” or la pasta “signature pastas half / full”. Filtered water is served with your lunch free of charge, upon request.
- Dinner menu: Drago Centro offers a tasting menu of antipasti, per cominciare (sole filet, potato gnocchi, vegetable ragout,zucchini puree), primi piatti (fettuccini, wild mushrooms, shaved summer truffles), secondi piatti (braised veal cheek, eggplant risotto alla norma) and dolce (chocolate brownie, black mission figs, hazelnuts, gianduja gelato). A full 5 course dinner will cost you $75 and optional wine pairing will add $55 more to the bill.
The most popular starters are carpaccio di vitello (veal carpaccio, black mission figs, basil aioli, brick dough) and il foie gras (seared foie gras, red endive, brioche, pear puree, saba). There are three types of salads, while the choice of pasta is much wider. You may try different types of fresh egg pasta, hard durum pasta or filled and baked pasta with various types of meat, seafood or vegetables. Mushroom or vegetable risotto goes great together with a choice of fish (petrale sole, salmon or clams) or meat (ribeye, duck breast, chicken, New York steak, pork belly).
Don’t forget to leave room for a dessert, because at Drago Centro it is heavenly: tiramisu, cheesecake tart, chocolate and olive it terrine, vanilla panna cotta or ginger sorbet. No matter what you choose it will look spectacular and mouthwatering.
What my Italian LA tastes like
After flipping through pages and pages of menu and without having tried anything but wine yet, I have decided that I must come back here with a big company of friends because Drago Centro’s menu of wine, cocktails and liquor requires separate attention and a crowd of fans. Other than making this note to myself, I chose to have il polpo (seared octopus, kale, potato gnocchi, pickled peppers, salsa verde), l’insalata di cesare (romaine, caesar dressing, shaved parmesan, garlic crostini), mushroom risotto and l’anatra (duck breast, potato-confit cake, brussel sprouts, peach glaze). The list seemed very complete to me so I left the dessert decision for later. The starters appeared on our table in about 5 minutes after ordering. The service is worth all the compliments. Our waiter was patient, smiling and very helpful. All the staff seemed experienced and confident. The way they talk to guests and present themselves creates this special feeling of upscale Los Angeles glamour.
The octopus I ordered set the right tone for the dinner. I knew that if its “chewiness” was right, there was nothing else that could go wrong with the rest of the food. It was very well seasoned and balanced greatly with tender fingerling potatoes. Thumbs up to the staff again, but as soon as our forks touched the table and wine was almost gone, our waiter was there serving salads and offering more drinks. So timely, so perfect that we could not say no. The Ceasar salad was good. I didn’t expect much of it because of how many times I’ve tried it, but it was very good and its dressing blended nicely with my favorite Pinot Noir.
Even though Caesar salad was not much to brag about, another popular and widely spread Italian dish made an impression on me. The mushroom risotto turned out a surprise. I have tried it millions of times in different countries and restaurants in the US, but I never thought there is something you could do to such basic dish to make it stand out. However, it was cooked to perfection, the structure was not too greasy or mushy, and the rice-to-mushroom ratio was precise with delicious creaminess. Truly to die for.
If you like dark meat, you will love the duck breast as much as I did. Cooked medium-rare with a sharp kick, it was juicy and even more flavorful when mixed with the beets and other toppings that came with it.
We kept talking about our food while eating, kept looking at the way it was presented, wondering how hard it must be to make it and trying to guess the secrets of seasoning and sauces. My cousin particularly mentioned the Burrata she had, which was a combination of a beautiful creative presentation and a rich taste.
The portions here are not huge, unlike in many other American restaurants. After finishing our meals we felt very full and satisfied, but there was still a little room for dessert, so we ordered a Panna Cotta and my all-time favorite, Tiramisu. Both desserts made a perfect ending to a perfect dinner. Panna Cotta wasn’t too sweet and was very straight to the point – a heaven that melts in your mouth, while Tiramisu was a little different from what I have tried before. It wasn’t as sweet as I thought it would be, though it had a very pleasant texture and even felt silky.
Traditions that perfectly fit into the modern world
After reading all I had to say about one of the best restaurants in LA, Drago Centro, it becomes pretty obvious that I loved it. Even thought it’s fancy and a bit on a pricey side, it is worth every penny. Kind waiting staff, prompt and attentive service, wonderful ambiance, and incomparable flavors of rich and tart Italian cuisine awaken the imagination. Drago Centro is a perfect place for pretty much everything, also, make sure to check out Bestia Los Angeles or Orsa And Winston Restaurant, for some other unique Italian restaurant choices. It is cozy and very modern for a business lunch, it has private tables for a romantic date, and a separate dining room for a party of 16 people. A wonderful outdoor lounge space adds unforgettable charm, while stone walls remind me of Italian scenery. The exquisite and varied wine list complements an extensive menu, which contains almost every Italian dish you could ever ask for. The presentation, as well as the taste, is spectacular. With this said, I recommend Drago Centro Downtown LA for, well, pretty much any occasion. There is no way you will not like it, so I rate it 10 out of 10! Don’t miss your chance to try Italiano Vero (real Italian) in the middle of busy Los Angeles, and don’t forget to take your friends with you!