Celestino’s inventive menu is irresistible
By Erica Wayne 04/08/2014
The participants in this spring’s Restaurant Week are, to date: A/K/A, Bistro 45,Café Bizou, California Pizza Kitchen, Celestino, Central Park, Cheval Bistro, Clearman’s Northwoods Inn, Dona Rosa, El Cholo, El Portal, Green Street Restaurant, Il Fornaio, Ix-Tapa, Jake’s, Japon Bistro, Kal’s, Kathleen’s, Malbec, McCormick & Schmick’s, Osawa, Pie ‘n Burger, Pop, Raymond, Real Food Daily, Robin’s, Rounds, Roy’s, Royce (at the Langham Huntington Hotel), Ruth’s Chris, Seco, Slaters 50/50, Sorriso/Bar Celona, Sushi Roku, The Terrace (at the Langham), Toro, Trattoria Neapolis and Zilin.
Most of the menus for the coming event haven’t been published as of this writing. However, Celestino’s is already available on the Pasadena Restaurant Week Web site and — a pleasant surprise — prices are the same as those offered early in the year during the 12-day dineLA event. And, although we took advantage of their $25 prix-fixe lunch in January, it was so good that we’re planning to head back for another Celestino repast at the end of this month.
Celestino started life in Pasadena in the 1990s as “Il Pastaio” which, as one might expect from the name, specialized in moderately priced pasta dishes with house-made noodles. But its founder, Sicilian born Celestino Drago (who presently runs Drago Centro and Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills, Drago Bakery in Culver City and a number of other enterprises) soon changed both name and menu. The eponymous restaurant (Celestino — pronounced “chel” as in cello — means heavenly) is decorated with understated refinement. And, overseen by younger Drago brother, Calogero, it has expanded to include not only pastas but organic meats, excellent seafood and a host of house-made desserts.
Celestino’s menu items are all strictly Italian. Interspersed throughout the lists of appetizers, pastas, entrées and sweets, you’ll find a few that even the most untutored of diners would recognize (e.g., minestrone, prosciutto and melon, eggplant Parmesan, lasagna Bolognese, veal scaloppini Marsala, cannoli and tiramisu). But these traditional standards are in the minority.
Most of the restaurant’s offerings are far more inventive. Over the years, we’ve feasted on innovative starters such as dry-cured beef with peppery arugula and tart grapefruit. We’ve also had swordfish carpaccio with orange and fennel salad (although we’ve rarely been able to resist ordering their feather-light calamari fritti.) We’ve enjoyed pasta dishes like the creamy risotto with sea-scented squid ink sauce, tangles of black and white tagliolini with scallops in subtle thyme cream, as well as spaghetti with fresh sardines and wild fennel. There’s also duck, mushroom and mascarpone-stuffed mezzaluna with blueberry sauce.
The entrées we’ve gorged on have included a two-inch high juicy pork loin with tarragon sauce, imported Dover sole grilled to perfection, sea bass in balsamic vinegar and honey glaze perched on a throne of potato puree, roasted rabbit in a sauce of black olives, a succulent grilled veal chop that must have weighed close to a pound, and fork-tender ossobuco served on a generous bed of hearty risotto Milanese fragrant with saffron.
All of these delights have been accompanied by some very fine wines from their carefully selected, mostly Italian, collection. We’ve managed to finish off these oversized, immensely satisfying repasts with dense flourless chocolate cake bathed in zabaglione, bread pudding made with panettone, and Celestino’s piece de resistance (or the Italian equivalent thereof): panna cotta, an incredibly rich cross between flan and crème brulee that masquerades as a “light” finale.
So, it’s going to be a treat to indulge in yet another spectacular mid-day meal at Celestino for a mere $25. In January, three of us made quick work of a basketful of pane rustica with butter triangles, a cup of hearty bread and tomato soup, a spinach salad with lots of pear segments and plenty of shaved pecorino cheese, and an artfully arranged and colorful platter of burrata, baby arugula and tomatoes with red peppers in olive oil.
Our entrees included gnocchi with fresh porcini mushrooms in a creamy sauce that was pure comfort food, risotto made with red beets that stained the porridge a bright Pepto Bismol pink and goat cheese that infused it with a subtle slightly sour flavor and buttery texture, and a hefty slab of marbled salmon with a delicious sorrel, tomato and wine sauce paired with steamed vegetables.
Desserts, included in the price, were the aforementioned panna cotta, flecked throughout with speckles of ground vanilla bean and seated in a pond of scarlet mashed strawberries in their own juice. There was also another signature Celestino sweet; orange ricotta cheese cake drenched in a citrus sauce spiked with orange zest and topped with a light snow of powdered sugar.
Although the restaurant was crowded (as one would expect with the enticement of this magnificent a meal at such a low price) and therefore a little noisy for optimal enjoyment, service was impeccable and the surroundings were lovely. Is it any wonder we’re coming back for “seconds?”
141 S. Lake Ave.,
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