ITALIAN CUISINE IN THE UNITED STATES
Celestino Drago, the chef loved by Hollywood stars
– by Nino Amadore August 17, 2018
He has a tone of the voice almost resigned. He tells and sometimes he runs a slang in that American typical of Sicilian emigrants. Words are not his forte. Because his kingdom is the kitchen. He is Celestino Drago , 61 years old in September, of whom almost 40 spent in the United States, in Los Angeles where he moved permanently in 1979 starting what we can call the revolution of Italian food in the States. He was not the only one, of course, but in Los Angeles he has long been the only one: you could call him a leader.
The first of eight brothers, originally from Galati Mamertino, Nebrodi village in the province of Messina, Celestino has learned the trade in Tuscany, attending the kitchen alongside the Pisan chef Ignazio Diana: arrived in Pisa to become a mechanic, Celestino has renounced the safe place at Piaggio to stay at the stove. “I felt – he says today – that this was my way: it was a passion I had as a boy. The chef took me under his protection, he bought me the books: in a short time I was able to handle all the pastries and when the chef left I took his place and I started to change things by introducing novelties, also in the presentation of the dishes, which were immediately noticed ».
The Sicilian became a specialist in Tuscan cuisine and his specialty made him a ticket to Los Angeles: it had to be round-trip, it was not like that. Here he arrives at the restaurant Orlando Orsini “was very popular, frequented by politicians, movie stars,” says Celestino. But it is with the opening of his first restaurant in Beverly Hills, in 1985 (Celestino fact, today closed but reopened in Pasadena) that the Sicilian chef starts the revolution: “For the Americans, the Italian cuisine was only that of the North and the Central Italy: everything that came from the South was not good. It was a legacy: they identified our kitchen with that of the first Sicilian immigrants, often improvised chefs who served really unrealistic dishes ».
In his restaurant Celestino, considered by Food & Wine one of the ten best chefs in the United States, brings the flavors of Sicily, Nebrodi, those tricks learned by his mother and reworked with the touch of the great chef: “There was difficulty at that time to find the right ingredients in the United States. And so I started to cultivate my things – he says -. Fortunately today it is not so ». But it is with the second restaurant, Drago, that Sicilian cuisine becomes a full member of the menu: “I entered six Sicilian dishes, six specialties and I must say that it was a success. At that point I became a Sicilian chef and this with great pride. Today, one third of the menus in our restaurants are characterized by Sicilian specialties: from pasta with sardines to aubergine-based dishes and so on ».
At that point, once the success has been achieved, other openings arrive and the Celestino brothers arrive in the States: first Calogero, then Tanino, then Giacomo and finally the smallest of Drago, Carolina. “I – says Celestino – I did what my mother and my father taught me since my childhood. But I could not have done it without the support and hard work of my brothers Calogero, Tanino, Giacomino, my sister Carolina and her husband Armando “. Today, the constellation of the Drago family’s restaurants in Los Angeles is made up of 13 restaurants : the most famous Drago Centro (costing 9 million dollars), the Pastaio. The philosophy is always that: “The table of the restaurant must be the continuation of the table at home,” says Celestino.
And on the premises of the Drago it is possible to meet Hollywood politicians and stars. “In the menu of the Via Alloro restaurant we have a dish called Joe Pesci, because every time he came he always asked the same thing. Jaqueline Bisset, who is a friend, still asks me for risotto and tells me: in Los Angeles you were the first to make risotto as it should be “. Among the anecdotes, many, there is what regards Bill Clinton of «that time he came to the restaurant Drago – says Celestino – he entered the kitchen and started to make a salad. And then the visits of Michelle Obama with the children “.
In recent years the Drago company has grown and also a lot: the last born of the house is the Drago bakery , but over the years this company has provided meals to the main airlines of the United States (Delta Airlines and United Airlines) for which until some time the company of the Drago family prepared 20 thousand dishes a day. For some time now a restaurant has been opened in the Petersen Automotive Museum , one of the largest car museums in the world run by a non-profit association and specialized in education in automobile history: «Here – says Celestino – we manage all the catering ».
And then there is the farm (the Dragon Farm ) in which the Drago grow the products that they then use in their restaurants: “We try to always present our simplicity and our flavors. We did it with the wine that has a picture of my father Nino in the label and with oil that is a tribute to his mother. We do it with the other things that we produce “. In total what has now become a family group gives work to 1,500 people. But the last initiative, to which Celestino holds a lot, is the Foundation that bears his name, whose seat was inaugurated at Galati Mamertino : “I did only what my parents taught me – repeats Celestino -. I think it is right to preserve the culture of food that this country (Galati I say) has. The Foundation can do many things but can not do it alone: we need the collaboration of everyone (institutions, citizens, businesses). I am the means to connect the past with the future. We have to do things that make us feel good. “
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United States of America Jaqueline Bisset Joe Pesci Sicily Ignazio Diana Michelle Obama Delta Airlines Bill Clinton Piaggio Central Italy United Airlines Celestino Drago