Veni, Vidi, Vici!
Los Angeles has always had Italian restaurants, but after these paisans hit town, everything changed
by ELAINE KAGAN / photographs by PEDEN + MUNK
“Tell me, do you spend time with your family?” the Godfather asks. “Sure I do,” the guy says, obviously anxious, sweating up his tuxedo. “Good,” the Godfather says, “because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
In October of 1985, a tiny restaurant opened on 3rd and Maple in Beverly Hills, next to what is now the post office. It had 22 tables. The specials for the day were scribbled on a blackboard in Italian, with no description—one salad, one pasta, one meat. The restaurant was called Il Giardino. It lasted only two and a half years because the block was torn down, but during that time, three Italian guys not from the same town ended up together in the same kitchen.
When it came to moving Italian food from “red sauce” to authentic, these three guys—Bruno Vietina, who later started the elegant Madeo; Agostino Sciandri, who went on to Toscana and Ago fame; and Celestino Drago, who eventually began the first of the Drago family’s 12 restaurants—were three of the five pioneers who would change L.A.’s culinary landscape.
“Ah, Il Giardino…” Celestino Drago says when I ask. “The place was dear to me.” Firstborn of eight, Celestino came to California without telling his parents he was no longer studying mechanical engineering, that he had a job cooking at a restaurant in Los Angeles—or that he’d even left Italy.
“Your mother didn’t know where you were?”
He smiles sheepishly. “When I went back to tell them I was going to stay in America, my father couldn’t talk; he only cried.”
Celestino was 27 when he met up with Bruno and Agostino. “We’d cook the dish and take it to the table. We did everything then.” A small, charming man, if slightly guarded, Celestino isn’t in a white chef’s coat when we meet. In a simple polo shirt and jeans, you would never know he is the Drago mogul.
It’s lunchtime in Enoteca Drago. The long wooden bar is behind him; the beautiful, paper-thin Margherita pizza is between us. The restaurant is quiet. Two doors down, at the corner of Brighton and Cañon, at his kid brother Giacomino’s Il Pastaio, all seats are full, and they’re waiting three deep at the bar. “That’s good,” Celestino says. Four Drago brothers own restaurants in L.A. It’s hard to know exactly who owns what, and it really doesn’t matter. It’s better to know they are friends.
“A restaurant is like a chain,” Celestino says, intertwining his fingers. “Every single link has to be strong—passion, dedication and consistency. I don’t want to be great. I want to be good…all the time.”
At Il Pastaio, the day begins at 7 a.m. Lillian Nuila and her husband, Arturo, have worked for the Dragos 25 years. Lillian is the pastry chef and captain of the kitchen—checking everything as it’s delivered, her snappy brown eyes on vegetables being chopped and chicken being cleaned. This tiny woman, a nurse for 18 years in El Salvador, bakes apple tatins in heavy skillets and sends back striped bass that isn’t up to snuff.
The kitchen in the morning is like an orchestra tuning up: 10 men all doing prep, simmering pots of ragout, trimming veal, picking through bushels of arugula, with little talk and lots of teamwork.
Il Pastaio rotates two main chefs, Rudy Torres and Benjamin Sanchez, who have worked for the Dragos 14 and 15 years, respectively. The first dish every day is for the family—maybe penne arrabiata or a bolognese— and everyone eats. At 11:30, as if the baton is lifted, the doors open, and it begins. Wedged between a 10-burner stove and huge oven doors, I stand at Rudy’s elbow for three hours and watch the perfectly tuned orchestra make 300 lunches. It’s better than the Philharmonic.
“Fantastic!” Rudy shouts, slinging sautéed rapini and sweet sausage over spaghetti. He backhands his tongs onto the oven-door handle and retrieves them like a gunslinger drawing his pistol. He and the crew sing, laugh and whistle while sliding croquettes into olive oil, pounding veal and sprinkling parmesan. Soaked through and red as tomato sauce, I dance out of there before dinner begins.
“You like Il Pastaio, huh?” Giacomino says, grinning. The youngest of the eight Dragos, he is, as his brother puts it, colorful. With his first look, you’re captured, and this is long before he’s grating black truffles over your penne. All this personality does not negate his power.
“I am the boss of my restaurants,” he says. I glue myself to him for a day and watch him plan the next day’s specials for probably six restaurants, change the menu for a gala he’s catering, shake hands with nearly everyone in the lunch crowd at Il Pastaio, slap backs, kiss cheeks, eye every move going on in two kitchens like General Patton, bark orders in Italian and stick spoons in and out of plates. “Taste it before you send it out.”
“We work for one person,” he says, “the restaurant. The restaurant becomes a family, and the family is the restaurant.”
Bruno Vietina’s brother Alfio and Alfio’s wife, Elvira, opened Madeo in 1985. Bruno has since gone back to Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany, but Alfio and Elvira are still there when you walk in, with their sons, Gianni and Nicola, daughter-in-law Erica and Bruno’s son, Cesare.
“I was 14 when I see him for the first time,” Elvira says, referring to Alfio. “He was 22.” She sprinkles a handful of flour on the dough and places tiny, tiny balls of meat across it—veal with swiss chard, thyme, garlic, parsley and tomatoes. There are no measurements, and nothing is written. She is making intordellate, her grandmother’s recipe. She runs the cutter across the dough and cuts out miniscule squares of pasta. “When I was 18, I marry him,” she tilts her chin, “and then is Gianni, and then is Nicola.”
Alfio and Elvira don’t run the line anymore, but it’s clear they run Madeo.
“Why didn’t you open a second restaurant?” I ask.
“It’s no good for us, the other people,” Alfio begins, with Elvira interrupting: “We want to see everything, every plate, every fork...” He finishes her thought: “To be in control.”
Married 44 years, their eyes are usually on each other. They spend nearly every waking moment in the restaurant, except Mondays, when their sons make them take a day off. “We are here eight days every week,” Alfio says, and Elvira gives him a little shove. Madeo is an elegant 120-seat restaurant with striped silk banquettes and Gianni’s glorious 18,000-bottle wine cellar—it’s where you go when you want to get dressed up and eat extraordinary food. “If you don’t like it,” Alfio says, laughing, “you go somewhere else.”
“I make food for Italian people,” Pasquale Morra says. “You don’t change the recipe according to California. It’s bulls--t.” His wife, Anna Eroe Morra, rolls her eyes.
Anna and Pasquale Morra opened Da Pasquale Trattoria on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1989. It took years to expand the tiny room to the 75 seats they have now, with 15 more outside. They came to L.A. on their honeymoon and never left. His brother Tonino had landed a job as pizza chef at Caffé Roma with their grandpa’s dough recipe. He is now at Pasquale’s Cafe in Brentwood, and younger brother Bruno owns Brunello Trattoria in Culver City.
Born in Naples—“on Piazza Garibaldi, which is downtown” Pasquale says, leaning over the paper on which I’m scribbling—he is dark and feisty, with a wicked smile and a cocky walk, the epitome of Italian man.
He orders the supplies, does the paperwork, conducts the meet-and-greet, covers the phone and bakes Nonno’s bread. Anna, maybe in her mid forties, with thick black hair pulled into a waist-length braid, tiny curls wisping at her hairline, is lovely—and formidable. At 9:30 a.m., she’s already back from the dentist and making lasagna, layering tender sheets of pasta with cheese and a ragout that could bring you to your knees. Unlike the Drago restaurants or Madeo, the white chef’s coat at Pasquale’s is still worn by one of the owners.
This is indeed a family affair. Anna works the fire line—lunch and dinner—six days a week. Pasquale’s sister, Teresa, might be waiting on you. Teresa’s daughter, Sarah, who’s currently in law school, or Gennaro, Anna and Pasquale’s son, who’s getting his art degree but used to dribble a basketball in the room upstairs, might be the one taking your order. And Anna’s nephew, Salvatore, might be seating you, or maybe it will be Jose Guzman, who has worked for the Morras 21 years and says by now he’s an “honorary Italian.”
“We are the best home cooking,” Pasquale says.
“Who’s the best chef?” I ask.
“Besides my wife?”
The corners of Anna’s mouth lift into a sideways smile. He takes a breath. “Gino Angelini,” Pasquale says.
Pasquale Morra is not the first to mention Gino Angelini—of Angelini Osteria on Beverly Boulevard—with reverence and much hand clasping to the chest. “I try my best all the time,” Gino says. “I am perfect? No. If I don’t make happy my customer, I close the restaurant.”
Gino Angelini is a dead ringer for Sean Connery, except for the accent, which is likely as thick as the day he came from San Clemente in Emilia-Romagna to cook for Mauro Vicente at the gorgeous Rex downtown.
If Il Pastaio’s kitchen is an orchestra, Angelini’s is a jazz sextet. At 9:30 a.m., leader Gino slips on the white chef’s coat and takes his place at the stove, and it’s clear his group will follow him anywhere he leads them. And when the kitchen is hot, hot, hot—lunch orders spitting out of the machine like ticker tape—the beat may go from the blues to a tarantella, and yet there is a sense of calm and quiet.
“What makes a great restaurant?” I ask.
“Quality...authenticity,” he says, sampling the marinara his grandmother made. “Not complicated—Mama would leave the pasta in the pan in the morning and heat it up at night. It gets crispy. You try at home—very good.” I nod as I enjoy zucchini flowers lovingly stuffed with mushrooms and ricotta. Exquisite.
Held back by a bum knee, Gino is chef now only half the time—he trades off with Ori Menashe, a young Israeli, whom he has trained for four years. “We touch reality with the hands,” he says, holding a lamb chop. “You can’t learn only four hours a week in a school.”
“Do you ever go home?”
He laughs, looking around at the people who have worked with him for years. “Life is here,” Gino Angelini says, smiling. “This is another family.”
“My family spoke English—definitely an advantage,” says Agostino Sciandri. “Bruno probably still doesn’t speak English,” he adds with a smile, referring to his amico Bruno Vietina. Heavier now than when he arrived in 1985, Sciandri at 70 is still a dashing man.
Born and raised in the corner of Italy between Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, Sciandri may not have owned the most restaurants, but he has seen the most fame. When he opened Toscana in 1989, you couldn’t get parking, much less in the door. And when he opened Ago 13 years ago, the bar was the place for power, money and celebrity, to see and to be seen, in addition to eating the signature veal chop. “Good food, a good product—never cheat your livelihood,” he says, watching everything that’s going on over the rim of his espresso cup.
We’re in Caffé Roma on Cañon. Agostino bought it four years ago, and he’s determined to bring it back to its glory days. With a shady, sprawling patio, a private party room and a classy bar, it has 250 seats. At 1:30 in the afternoon, it isn’t packed.
“It’s good enough,” he says, his eyes circling the room. “You have to give it time.”
Given that the man has been a part of this from the beginning, I assume Sciandri knows whereof he speaks. He brought Ago to Las Vegas and South Beach. He was at the beginning of the innovative Rosti takeout chain. He still watches over a treasured trattoria, Sor Tino in Brentwood, and he just opened Toscanova in Century City.
“The same simple food but a new concept fitting the location—affordable,” he says.
“You never stop...You do what you know,” he adds, taking off his glasses. “You cannot stand still.”
“Do you miss being chef, working the line?”
“Yeah, I do. I miss it a lot.”
“Would you ever want to have a little place again, like Il Giardino...like back when you started?”
His eyes brighten: “I don’t know...maybe someday.”
“You were the beginning.”
Leaning back, ever the patriarch, Sciandri reflects. “I am a part of the trunk of this tree,” he says, sounding very much like the Godfather.