Dear Mr. Gold:
What would you recommend as a good first-date Italian restaurant more or less in the Pasadena area?
The good news is that Pasadena has a wealth of Italian restaurants. The bad news is that most of them are pretty corporate, which, I suspect, is not quite the direction you had in mind, and while the ever-mutating menu of regional specialties at Il Fornaio in Old Town occasionally has its charms, its most obvious competitors are as Italian as the green tube of pre-grated cheese your mom probably kept in the fridge. And Siena, which would have suited your purposes perfectly, just closed.
If you are affluent and exceptionally erudite, Tre Venezie — though it’s slipped since its founding chef moved on a few months ago — is a decent place specializing in the foods of far–Northern Italy, but unless you’re fluent in vintages of Ribolla Gialla and the contents of cjalsons, you may be on shaky ground.
If you’re looking for well-executed old-school Italian, I am fond of the original Domenico’s (on Washington near Altadena Drive), which is like a 1960s Italian restaurant preserved under glass, with tasty sausage and peppers, cheese toast, and something the restaurant calls Calabrese pizza, a crisp, tomatoless pie topped with various cheeses and lots of garlic. If you’re looking for a Lady and the Tramp first date, Casa Bianca in nearby Eagle Rock has fearsome lines at peak dinner hour, but it is surprisingly pleasant after 9 or so, a checked-tablecloth joint with an irresistible version of thin-crusted Chicago bar pizza. (Skip the mushroom topping, which comes out of a can; do get your pizza with homemade sausage and fried batons of eggplant.) Little Dom’s, 10 freeway minutes away in Los Feliz, has great cocktails, fine Creole-Italian food and a groovy, slightly studied Rat Pack vibe. I’d consider the new Bottega Louie downtown, too.
So why am I sending you to Celestino, the Lake Avenue outpost of the Drago family-restaurant empire? Because it’s a proper restaurant, with white tablecloths, drinkable wine, and golden light that makes everybody look radiant. The menu is safe, even familiar if you’ve been to any of the other Drago restaurants, but lets you push the boundaries just a little, by ordering squid-ink risotto, for example, or roasted rabbit with black olives, without straying too far from your comfort zone. And the service is just a bit stiff — there’s no danger of the waiter plopping down on your banquette and confessing, “My name is Giacomo and I really love the pappa al pomodoro” — which oddly seems to encourage couples to bond in mild rebellion. Go a bit retro with the excellent tiramisu — or drive up to Bulgarini for a gelato nightcap — and you’re halfway home.
Celestino: 41 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 795-4006 or www.giacominodrago.com/celestino.htm.