Friday, September 24, 2010

Neighborhood Italian - Celestino

In a time when so many neighborhoods are dominated by mainstream national chain restaurants, it makes you appreciate the smaller, neighborhood eateries, especially when you're in an area without many destination-worthy places. While I usually wrangle my Pasadena Hounds to come out and try the Italian eateries in Mid-town and West L.A., when the situation is reversed, I've found myself returning to Celestino more often than not. Celestino is named after the most famous Drago brother, Chef Celestino Drago of Drago and Drago Centro fame. It used to be part of the Drago empire, but these days, it's being run by his brother, Chef-Owner Calogero Drago.

Stepping into Celestino feels like you've walked into a classic Italian restaurant from the 1980's or '90's. Low, incandescent lighting imparts a warm, yellow hue around the dining room that makes the dining experience more casual and relaxed, than the sharper, more modern, hot establishments around town. There's nothing wrong with it, but the ambiance definitely feels more like a well-worn, familiar pair of shoes or a jacket, than anything.

Like its decor, Celestino's menu seems locked in time, featuring some classics that never change (with a few daily specials to mix things up). The menu is exactly the same from the first time one of my friends took me to Celestino 2 years ago, to my most recent visit last month.

During one of my earlier visits, my guest and I begin with their Asparagus and Arugula Salad.

The Asparagus is cooked just right, and when combined with the Corn, Tomatoes and fragrant Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, they help to balance out the slightly bitter, peppery aspects of the Arugula. The house-made Lemon Herb Vinaigrette is quite nice, but it's a tad overdressed.

Our entrees arrive next, starting with the Costolette d'Agnello con Aceto Balsamico e Menta (Rack of Lamb with Balsamic and Mint).

I order it medium-rare, and it arrives as specified. The Lamb is juicy, very tender and enjoyable. There's a delicious savory crust around the outer edges, and the Balsamic Sauce is only slightly tart without overpowering the Lamb.

The next entree arrives at this point, a signature item from Chef Celestino Drago's repertoire and kept on the menu due to its popularity, no doubt: Papardelle con Fagiano e Morelle (Wide Fettucine with Pheasant and Morels Mushrooms).

The house-made Papardelle pasta is cooked al dente, with a good bite while still being pliable. The amount of Pheasant is a bit too precious, but it works well with the Morel Mushrooms, which have a gorgeous, idiosyncratic aroma and texture. :) Overall, in comparing the version here to the original Drago in Santa Monica and Drago Centro's version, I'd have to say this one is the weakest: A bit too heavy-handed on the Sauce and a bit too sparse on the Pheasant, but it's still a solid version of the Drago classic.

We finish with a house-made Panna Cotta with Strawberries.

The custard-y consistency of this Panna Cotta works fine with the fresh Strawberries, and it's thankfully not too sweet, making for a good way to finish up the meal. :)

On another visit, my guests and I begin with the straightforward-sounding Calamari Fritti (Fried Calamari).

I'm hesitant about ordering this at first, but our server assures us it's their most popular appetizer for a reason. Taking a bite, the light breading gives way to tender, perfectly cooked Calamari pieces, lightly briny and just satisfying on so many levels. :) It truly celebrates the Calamari and should be enjoyed with just a squeeze of Lemon (the accompanying Tomato Sauce is too piquant and overpowers the dish).

Their Zuppa del Giorno is a Mushroom Puree Soup.

It's a slightly-thick, puree of Shiitake, Porcini and Button Mushrooms (with no dairy) and the result is a rustic, fragrant, full-bodied Soup that I can't stop drinking. :)

Their Spaghetti ai Frutti di Mare (Spaghetti with Mixed Seafood in a light Tomato Sauce) arrives next.

There's a good, clean, oceanic flavor coming through from the first bite. The pasta is cooked al dente, and the Clams are lightly briny, as are the Mussels. The Shrimp are *not* overcooked in the slightest, showing some good competency from the kitchen in handling different types of seafood at the same time. Overall, my guests loved it and if there was any issue, it'd be that it was just a bit oversauced.

Continuing on, our selection of two Primi Pastas arrives at this point: Shrimp and Porcini Risotto, and their Papardelle con Fagiano e Morelle.

Using an Arborio Rice from Piedmont, Italy, the kitchen turns out an excellent product: The Risotto is lightly creamy, delicate with a good, toothsome quality, and the Shrimp are perfectly cooked. Excellent. :)

Their classic Papardelle con Fagiano e Morelle is about the same as last time, except the Pheasant meat this time is far too overcooked, turning into tough, old-tasting morsels.

Dessert arrives in the form of their house-made Tiramisu.

While it's pillowy and quite airy, it's also far too liquid-y and wet for my tastes. It's sitting in a pool of nearly-tasteless liquid and it's a bit off-putting. There's a good dusting of Cocoa Powder and it's not too sweet (a good thing), but overall, there are better versions around town.

On my most recent visit, my guests and I start with their Insalata Primavera e Formaggio di Capra (Baby Mixed Lettuce with Roasted Peppers, Eggplant and Goat Cheese).

The Eggplant is excellent, lightly roasted, allowing it to maintain a good meatiness without turning it into mush (as many Eggplant dishes have a tendency to become). The Goat Cheese is surprisingly mild and complements the salad on many levels, but it's a touch overdressed.

Those looking for a bolder, more savory Pasta might consider the Pennette con Prosciutto e Vodka (Penne Pasta with Prosciutto and Vodka Sauce).

There's a genuine, deep savoriness that pervades each bite that's satisfying on many levels, but at the same time, the heavy Vodka Cream Sauce feels like a dish more befitting a "Red Sauce Italian-American restaurant" than a former satellite of the Drago empire.

The Lasagna alla Bolognese (Lasagna with Meat Ragu) is another dish that seems out-of-place in a (former) Drago restaurant, but at the same time, it seems to fit at Celestino.

The Lasagna is sadly overcooked, turning into a pile of mush. It's also extremely salty, but there's a very clean Bolognese Sauce (more Italian-American style than anything), but it can't save the rest of the dish.

Finally, the Primi combination of Tagliolini Bianchi e Neri con Salsa di Cappesante e Timo (Black and White Tagliolini with Scallops in a Thyme Cream Sauce) and Ravioli di Spinaci e Ricotta Pomodoro e Basilico (Ravioli stuffed with Spinach & Ricotta, in a Tomato and Basil Sauce) arrives soon after.

The Tagliolini pasta is striking in its color and cooked perfectly. There's a good, light creaminess coming through that makes you wonder if its not two different chefs in the kitchen (one making the more delicate pastas and one making the brash Italian-American style dishes).

The Scallops, however, are sadly overcooked, extremely rubbery and dry. :(

Their Ravioli with Spinach and Ricotta comes across as a very straightforward, typical version of the dish, and is too heavily sauced.

Service has been a bit mixed during my visits over the years. On some visits, we get a very friendly server that's almost a caricature of the overly emphatic Italian waiters you might see in movies. On other visits, it's been quite low-key and professional. And on one occasion, we get paired with a waiter that seems like they just arrived from Italy with very little command of the English language (he had a hard time understanding basic requests in English throughout the meal). Prices range from $5 - $28 for most dishes, with most Pasta dishes falling in the ~$14 range.

Celestino has the feel of a low-key, comfortable, neighborhood Italian eatery; one that serves many Italian-American classics and some more enjoyable authentic Italian dishes as well. You see flashes of brilliance from the perfectly cooked Rack of Lamb, to the delicate Mushroom Puree Soup, to the Shrimp and Porcini Risotto. But there are so many heavy-handed dishes that are oversauced or overcooked that it makes you wonder if the menu might be catered to a less discerning crowd than the ones visiting Chef Calogero's brother's flagships like Drago Centro.

Rating: 6.0 (out of 10)

141 S. Lake Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91101
Tel: (626) 795-4006

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.


JustinM said...

A much less discerning crowd, no question about that. While I like the place, its popularity has always seemed out of line with its quality.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi JustinM,

Definitely agree. Still if I was in the area and needed to eat some Italian I'd stop by. :) Thanks.

Charlie Fu said...

live right next to the place, been awhile since i've gone back but I do remember that while I felt their noodles were usually well done, they definitely oversauced like you said.

Unlike the "big brother" drago centro restaurant which errs on the side of less sauce, Celestino definitely likes the heavy dose of cream.

That being said, the portions are significantly larger than Centro at a cheaper price.. so i can only complain so much :D

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

Nice! Well said, and the price to portion ratio is usually pretty fair. :)

Flemington Steele said...

This one is tricky - in the last few years Calogero has spent much less time at the restaurant, and much more time in Italy, leaving the restaurant to be run by his minions. The result being, and not surprisingly, an overall dip in quality.
The service has become a bit indifferent, the food presentations hurried and the wine list very poorly maintained - which is a sure sign of disease.
When a server has to apologize 3 or 4 times when a wine is out of stock and is cornered into recommending something which they know little to nothing about, it creates a tense situation for all involved.

I can't really complain about the quality of the food however. The kitchen puts out an above average product most of the time, but the rest of the operation seems to just be going through the motions without the vision of their leader, Calogero Drago.

Anna A. said...

Mmmm that shroom soup sounds delicious. The one confession I have to make is that I adore overcooked pasta :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Flemington,

Thank you so much for the background information. Very interesting and I guess that now makes perfect sense why Celestino is the way it is currently.

I agree with you that it puts out an above-average product and for the area, I'm happy with returning if I happen to be in the neighborhood. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Their Mushroom Soup was indeed delicious! :)

Re: Pasta - There's no shame in that. :) I have plenty of friends who prefer their pasta on the soft side. :)

gourmetpigs said...

I haven't been this place in so long! The dishes I've had have also been hit and miss but I found a few that I really love. Next time try their ricotta cheesecake for dessert :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Nice. :) Thanks for the rec. :)

stuffycheaks said...

all the pastas look really good. i always have trouble trying to figure out which Drago brother restaurant to go to, Which are your favorites?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi stuffycheaks,

Definitely Drago Centro (Downtown LA). You can see some pics I posted of that place on this blog. Enjoy~ :)

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