By Brianna Chu and May S. Ruiz
Celestino, at the South Lake Avenue District, has been a celebrated restaurant among diners looking for authentic Italian cuisine. For over 20 years, it has attracted locals and visitors to Pasadena with its seasonal fares made with the finest and freshest ingredients.
Owner Calogero Drago, one of the famed Drago Brothers who operate several restaurants in the Los Angeles area, is legendary for his exuberance. He dashes through the restaurant, making his rounds from table to table, imbuing an atmosphere of cheerful energy and enthusiasm. It wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that he actually knows diners by name and is aware of their food preference. Because of the personal relationships he has built with diners, people travel to Pasadena to enjoy the food as much as the friendship.
However, Drago doesn’t rely on goodwill alone. Celestino is, after all, a restaurant; so he ensures that diners are never disappointed and comes up with dishes that make their experience memorable. During a recent private tasting dinner, he inaugurated his seasonal menu featuring mushrooms and truffles – those rare and coveted fungi which make for the most sublime food creations.
And after reading Brianna’s review below, you’ll appreciate why Celestino is the acclaimed restaurant that it is.
Italian cuisine is fairly ubiquitously loved, making the search for a great Italian restaurant a challenging one. Even novice cooks can tackle some classic and comforting Italian dishes, thus raising the bar for finding an Italian spot that is truly worth going out for. Ambience, too, is especially important; we want the kinds of places we can rely upon for any occasion – birthdays, weekend dinners with family, dates – and the mere mention of Italian restaurants conjures images of candlelight, warmth, red-checked tablecloths, and great hospitality. The balance? Food that is indulgent yet not overwhelming, and of a quality that I couldn’t imagine easily replicating in my own kitchen.
These were my expectations when we walked into Celestino. For 7 pm on a Wednesday night, the cozy restaurant was already filling up, and my high hopes raised higher still when we were immediately greeted by the friendly face of its owner, Calogero Drago. We were directed to a softly lit table in Celestino’s Lake Room, which, with deep red, fresco-textured walls and flickering candlelight, fit the image of your favorite upscale Italian restaurant.
Over the course of the evening, we were treated to small plates of six different appetizers, a choice between an entreé of sole or veal scalloppini, and a dessert of panna cotta in a tasting menu prepared to showcase Celestino’s seasonal dishes.
The tasting commenced with an eggplant polpettine, a little “meat”-ball which had a crisp outer shell and surprisingly cheesy pureé of eggplant.
The following pumpkin soup subverted my expectation – the pumpkin element came from the seeds, and was not the main component of the soup. The pumpkin seeds provided texture and nuttiness to the thin, spring green soup, which also featured tender cooked squid.
Next, the burrata antipasto – accompanied by a tomato sauce on a bed of arugula. The skin of the freshly-made cheese was resilient and slightly resistant to being cut, and once my fork broke through, the texture of the cheese within was incredibly silky and creamy in taste – as buttery as its name suggests.
The penultimate appetizer was mixed seafood tortelloni, which are the larger cousin of tortellini. Each tortelloni was handmade, Drago told us (an assertion supported by the bite of the dough), and was the perfect two-bite size proportion. The cioppino sauce in which the tortelloni were served was gently spicy: enough to warm the tongue, but certainly nowhere near overpowering to interfere with any of the flavors of the sauce itself.
When the risotto and bambolotti combination came out, the room was delighted by the simultaneous entrance of waiters holding truffles and graters in their hands. The risotto was rich and savory, and the slight sweetness and tang of the Nero D’Avola red wine was clearly present. Of course, the topping of truffle shavings added depth and earthiness to the already rich risotto. The bambolotti with gorgonzola, hazelnuts, and fresh black truffle was outstanding.
My chosen entreé of veal scalloppini was tender and delicious, but the polenta that accompanied it actually caught more of my attention, perhaps because it provided relief from the heaviness of eating the risotto and scalloppini back-to-back.
For me, however, the dessert was quite literally the showstopper of the entire dinner. After so many courses, everyone was quite full, but the panna cotta perfectly contrasted against some of the heavier elements of the meal. The cream was lightly sweetened and both the flecks and flavor of vanilla bean shone through. The strawberries seemed to have been macerated in the limoncello, so the flavors were happily married by the time it reached us. Despite how full I was, I found the panna cotta dangerously easy to eat.
As we walked out to our car, we passed the kitchen, where I noticed trays of what appeared to be freshly-made tagliatelle nests on sheet pans laying on the order counter; and I wondered how I could have lived in Pasadena most of my life without ever eating at Celestino. The atmosphere is comfortable and welcoming, which seems to be a reflection of the joy and heritage of its Sicilian owner, and the food is a celebration of authentic Italian cuisine.
After some reviewing of Celestino’s online menu, it must also be noted that not all the dishes we tasted are present on the online menu, and there does not appear to be a dessert menu online either, despite the inclusion in the photo gallery of the truly excellent panna cotta. The items sampled that do seem to appear are the burrata antipasto, the truffle risotto, the veal scalloppini, and the sole (the alternate entreé choice). The lack of inclusion of these items on the menu is perhaps unsurprising, as Drago has been known to spontaneously invent new culinary offerings. To truly know what Celestino has to offer, I have a feeling you must just visit and find out yourself; and I personally plan to return just to see what new treats Drago has concocted.
Brianna Chu, a guest opinion writer for Beacon Media, was born and raised in Pasadena. She loves to cook and to eat, is a lifelong viewer of Food Network, and enthusiastically introduced the tradition of Thanksgiving dinners to her British and European friends while earning her degree at the University of St Andrews. While they absolutely hated going around the table and saying what they were grateful for every year, they also loved the excuse to get together and feast with friends enough to endure it anyway.