Los Angeles, short neither of nice days nor of boulevards, should be the world capital of sidewalk dining — sprawling areas spilling out onto sidewalks and toward the streets, colonizing street parking in Brentwood and downtown, taking over Westwood Village on weekends.
And yet it is often easier to find outdoor restaurants in cities where it rains three days out of four.
This is why, perhaps, it feels so right to be eating dinner outside Osteria Drago on a hot Thursday night, looking out onto the giant billboards and blingy street traffic of Sunset Boulevard, the minimally dressed tourists on their way to one West Hollywood hotel or another and the shaggy rock dudes who still blast Mötley Crüe from the speakers of their trashed-out cars.
The Osteria is at kind of the sweet spot on Sunset, right where the entertainment office buildings start to take over from the night life and just far enough from the mediocre sidewalk restaurants of Sunset Plaza to feel apart from them. The waitress addresses you in Italian. You nod your approval at the panzanella, a vinegary bread salad tricked out with kale and tiny marbles of mozzarella cheese. It is sweet to drink a cold bottle of Verdicchio, pick at your salad and watch Sunset roll on toward the sea.
The waitress expertly bones a whole Dover sole at the next table, carefully lifting the white fillets from their skeleton, arranging them into a lattice and spooning over them what you know to be a lemon sauce sharp with capers. You have never wanted a fish half so much.
We have spent more than half a lifetime attending the restaurants of Celestino Drago and his brothers, from the modest Celestino that opened on South Beverly Drive during the 1980s restaurant boom, to the casual Il Pastaio a few blocks north, through his forays into Sicilian food, Italian steakhouse cooking, wine bars, San Fernando Valley trattorias and the Drago flagship in Santa Monica, recently closed, which specialized in game. The enormous Drago Centro opened downtown almost simultaneously with the crash of 2008 but quickly became the splashy, social restaurant the financial district needed.
Osteria Drago is basically a simpler version of the Santa Monica Drago, fitted into what was until recently Il Sole, which was a fine but slightly cuisine-impaired restaurant known for its veal chop and for its celebrity clientele. Osteria Drago, an airy yet clubby place where a plurality of the customers seem to be speaking Italian most nights, feels pretty much the same. But when Drago took over the restaurant, he upgraded the penne alla vodka to cavatelli with a venison ragù; the Chilean sea bass was jettisoned in favor of grilled ahi with salsa verde and eggplant; and Il Sole's pollo alla Milanese was replaced by roast chicken with fresh artichokes, peas and fava beans.
The word "Euro" does tend to be sighed when conversation turns to Osteria Drago, but it is a place where the cooking is understated but real — alive. I keep thinking of an old Mick Jagger interview, in which he said that he kept making records because he didn't want the Stones to become an oldies act, that there was something in the act of songwriting that kept the band vital, whether anybody wanted to hear those new songs or not. Drago could have filled the place with his classic shrimp ravioli in lobster sauce or spaghetti al cartoccio, and his chef Evan Gotanda, late of the Santa Monica Drago, could have executed them, but the short menu is fresh, cleanly executed, new and not quite regional.
So there is the dish called sapori di mare, flavors of the sea, a smooth, cool panna cotta flavored with sea urchin roe at the base of a small shellfish salad, and a zuppa Toscana that turns out to be basically a bean soup zapped with garlic and shredded kale. You probably tasted venison carpaccio if you went to one of Drago's restaurants years ago: This version, raw meat garnished with toasted hazelnuts and ripe raspberries, tastes a little like something you could have encountered in a Portland restaurant at the height of the Pacific Northwest boom a decade ago but also like an antipasto at a stylish, Michelin-starred restaurant in central Italy. The inevitable sous-vide egg comes on a stodgy pancake made with farro, the ancient Etruscan grain, but is scented with musky Umbrian summer truffles. Nothing here is revolutionary; almost everything here is good.
After decades of restaurants from the Drago brothers, this one on the Sunset Strip gets the important things right.
8741 W. Sunset Blvd. (near Sherbourne Drive), West Hollywood, (310) 657-1182, http://www.osteriadrago.com
Appetizers, $8-$26; pastas, $14-$30; main courses, $26-$42; desserts, $8.
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet parking.