Ah, the Sunset Strip. The famed mile-and-a-half stretch of Sunset Boulevard running through West Hollywood boasts decades of movie and rock-n-roll history, playing out against a backdrop of bright billboards and neon. It’s a quintessential part of Los Angeles, and more often than not, first time visitors to the city make it a point to at least drive through. It also happens to be home to dozens of mediocre, overpriced restaurants. Tourist traps, if you will. Which is why we don’t venture over that direction too often (also, parking is a pain).
Obviously, there are exceptions. The Strip is home to Night + Market and the Eveleigh, which we love, and you can get a pretty solid burger over at the Burger Lounge. And we’ve heard great things about Sushi Park. Now, you can add one more establishment to that list, the newly opened Osteria Drago, where “rustic elegance” is more than just a catchphrase.
It’s really no surprise that Osteria Drago is as good as it is. Celestino Drago has been serving Los Angeles diners elevated Italian fare since the 1980s at various locations throughout the area. We had an enticing taste of his cuisine at Drago Centro a couple of weeks ago. But it’s at his more casual Osteria that we really see how Drago has managed to thrive for the last three decades in an industry where chef-owners flare and burn out even more quickly than the starlets stumbling out of Bar Marmont.
Given their blood relation, it’s a little surprising how much the décor and atmosphere at Osteria Drago differs from its more formal sibling downtown. Centro is glass, dim lighting, and modernity, and the Osteria answers with wood, white walls, flower boxes and Old-World intimate charm. Another difference? The bar at Drago Centro is a monster, providing ample space for Jaymee Mandeville and company to mix up creative cocktails. Osteria Drago hosts a much cozier bar space, with its focus on the extensive wine list.
Even if the menu was limited to just salads and appetizers, Osteria Drago would leave a good impression. The starters are uniformly excellent, starting with the sapori di mare, a smooth, buttery sea urchin panna cotta topped with a heap of juicy seafood and microgreens tossed in a tangy citrus vinaigrette ($16). The custard is simultaneously delicate and decadent, and may just win over sea urchin first-timers and even haters.
The carpaccio di capriolo (venison carpaccio, $14), is just as pretty a dish. Flavorwise, it’s an interesting combination: rich, slightly gamey slices of deer, tart raspberries, toasted hazelnuts and slivers of salty white anchovies.
The tortino di farro is the most expensive small plate on the menu at $26, but it’s definitely worth the price, at least for truffle-lovers. A mound of razor thin slices of summer truffles add a glorious earthy depth to an already delicious combination of spelt pancake, a runny, creamy 63º poached egg and strips of prosciutto.
As good as the starters are, it's the pasta menu that truly allows Drago to show off his skill. The agnolotti encase sweet yellow corn filling in an envelope of top-notch fresh pasta ($16) and are gone way too quickly. And the lush, creamy sauce begs to be sopped up by whatever means available.
The pappardelle with roasted pheasant and morel mushrooms ($16) is the essence of rusticity. The succulent meat, the woody, musky morels and the broad-cut pasta is exactly the type of dish I imagine you would enjoy at an old-school hunting lodge after a day of tromping through the forest (shooting pheasant & mushroom hunting?).
The orecchiette, with pork sausage, rapini, and pecorino ($14) is less showy, but also great. As with pappardelle, the thick orecchiette is a showcase for the quality of the pasta.
The spaghetti chitarra (fresh squid ink pasta) with manila clams ($18), is a magnificent bowl of food, both visually and on the tongue. The perfectly al dente inky, ocean-scented strands of pasta are exceptional, and the slightly briny clams are a great accompaniment.
The profitteroles ($8), warm balls of fried dough goodness drizzled in an intense mandarin sauce, are a great dessert for those with less of a sweet tooth. For a more indulgent choice, the terrina di cioccolata e arance (valrhona chocolate orange terrine) is your best bet with the citrus lightening the incredible richness of the chocolate.
Sigh, the Sunset Strip. Mostly gone are the days of glitz and glamour. These days, you're more likely to find tourists, drunken celebrities, and hoards of Juggalos (we once mistakenly planned a dinner on the strip with an Insane Clown Posse concert happening next door). But in the midst of all that, you can also find really great, elegant Italian cuisine at Osteria Drago.