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A Real Drago

L’Arancino, Celestino Drago’s fourth restaurant, is now open for business in the space formerly occupied by Jackson’s on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood. The walls gleam with fresh white paint; chairs look smart in new linen slipcovers. And on the walls hang Wayne Thiebaud–like paintings of oranges (l’arancino means orange in Itailian). L’Arancino has a bright, cheerful air — as well it should. Not only is the restaurant up and running smoothly, it’s downright wonderful. There’s no mystery as to why L’Arancino is so good. Celestino Drago is himself well-seasoned. Always a leader among the now legion number of Italian chefs in this town, he opened Chianti Cucina, then cooked at his Beverly Hills restaurant, Celestino, before moving west to open Drago in Santa Monica. In the post-’80s economic dip, he opened two casual trattorias: Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills and another in Pasadena. (The Pasadena Il Pastaio recently changed its name to Celestino.) L’Arancino is a departure from these others. Whereas Drago (the restaurant) offers a few Sicilian specialties, L’Arancino’s menu is frankly, unabashedly Sicilian — and this in a town whose tastes have been trained for Tuscan cooking. Sicily, like California, is famous for its citrus groves, specifically its highly flavorful lemons. The island’s other characteristic ingredients include seafood (tuna, swordfish, sardines), raisins, salt-cured capers and salt itself. Wild herbs — fennel, oregano and mint — abound. The culinary influences of North Africa, Greece and Rome are present in the use of chickpeas, couscous, lamb, fava beans and warm spices (cinnamon, cloves). There is also the salted codfish known as bacalao or baccala, which was introduced by Norwegian mariners. Sicily is home to pasta a la norma (rigatoni with eggplant, tomato and dried ricotta); caponata, an intense vegetable stew that’s the Italian equivalent of ratatouille; and other well-known dishes, such as cassata and cannoli. In a remarkably concise menu, Drago and chef Craig D’Alasandro spell out the high points of Sicilian cuisine. Appetizers include a sweet, salty, juicy and addictively chewy dried codfish that’s been marinated in vinegar with herbs and raisins and served with salt-cured caper berries. A lobster salad presents the rosy, fat, shucked claw set upright, as if beckoning you to eat it; the meat is minted, surrounded by steamed favas and nutty, quartered artichokes. A frequent special is burrata, a new item popping up in Italian restaurants throughout the city: A two-in-one fresh cheese, it has a firm, fresh mozzarella on the outside and a creamy, fresh ricotta within, served with olive oil and a rasp of freshly ground pepper: surely an apex in the history of freshly clabbered sweet milk. Of three soups, the brusciuvia is a must: a tasty and hearty slow-cooked peasant soup of the wheat grain spelt and beans, which include canellini, lentils, borlotti and garbanzos, and onion, and another Sicilian flavor, green tops of celeriac. Saffron-scented bucatini with fresh sardines, wild fennel, raisins, bread crumbs and pine nuts is the quintessential Sicilian pasta. Fishy, sweet, intense, it’s unlike anything Tuscan, and I thought I disliked it immediately — until I noticed I couldn’t stop eating it. I could taste the dry fennel-covered hills, the sharp brininess of the sea, the resin of the pines, the dry summer sunlight stored in raisins. The other showstopper is a timbale of penne, meat sauce, peas, melted cheese and hard-boiled egg, all wrapped in thinly sliced eggplant: It looks like a beautiful upended bowl on a plate surrounded by a pool of fresh tomato ragu. A special risotto with squash blossoms and baby zucchini reminds us that Celestino Drago makes, and has always made, the best risotto in town — always creamy, al dente and brilliantly balanced. A tender rack of veal broiled with mint-almond pesto is a tempting and satisfying entrée. But hold out for a sensationally flavorful aged New York steak, served sliced on a bed of arugula that’s been lightly wilted by a warmed dressing of parsley, lemon, olive oil and garlic. Drago’s revised Sicilian desserts include cassata and a lightened-up cannoli. But go for the watermelon gelatin with chocolate shavings — a brilliant remake and upgrading of the Palermo dessert. Gelato in Sicily tends to be insanely good, and L’Arancino holds to this standard with a silky, creamy, rich product. A combination of chocolate and hazelnut will set you gibbering with pleasure. A smooth, intense apricot sorbet may be the best sorbet I’ve ever tasted. A blood-orange granita is quenching and pebbly. Over the years, Celestino Drago’s food, at its best, has had the uncanny power to produce happiness — which is exactly what good food can and should do. At L’Arancino, I get downright exuberant. 8908 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 858-5777. Open for lunch Mon.–Fri. and for dinner seven nights. Entrées $9–$23. Full bar. Valet and street parking. AE, DC, MC, V. Recommended dishes: baccala all’Eoliana (marinated codfish), eggplant and pasta timbale, rack of veal, New York steak.


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