Photo Credit: Drago Centro
The Wine Exchange
Allen R. Balik
“Cheers for the holidays.” I always know the Holiday season is moving along when my wife Barbara and I go to LA and take part in my “Cheers” wine tasting group’s Holiday Dinner at Drago Centro. I’ve been a member of Cheers for a long time and even more than the hundreds of wines (some great, many outstanding and a few disappointing) I’ve enjoyed with the group, I treasure the friendships of my fellow members that have grown immensely over time. For many years, since the launch of their respective Italian eateries, I’ve been a friend and fan of highly respected LA restaurateurs Celestino Drago and Piero Selvaggio. And now they are working together at Drago Centro making this year’s holiday dinner all the more special. The story below is more than just recounting the menu and wines from a superb dining experience. Rather, I wanted to tie the history of Cheers to the personalities and story of LA’s storied Italian dining scene and what both Celestino and Piero contributed to that evolution. Holiday dinners are an integral part of the season as they serve to bring friends and family together in celebration of the year just passing and the new one to come in addition to the religious celebrations we can look forward to. Best wishes to all for very happy and fulfilling holidays! I hope you enjoy reading today’s column and as always I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
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“Cheers” for the holidays
Earlier this month, my wife Barbara and I traveled south to share an evening with old friends while enjoying a festive holiday dinner in the Vault Room at Drago Centro in Downtown Los Angeles. I’ve been a member of the “Cheers” wine tasting group for more than 30 years, and this traditional Cheers Holiday Dinner gives us all a chance to share each other’s company at a special time of year while savoring the sumptuous cuisine prepared by noted chef Celestino Drago framed by wines specially selected from our personal cellars.
Cheers began about 35 years ago in the back office of Flask Liquor in Studio City when a small group of friends gathered to help the late Marty Petersil (then Flask co-owner) evaluate red wines. Marty had developed allergic symptoms related to reds and relied on the weekly assistance of his wine savvy “mates” to taste and select new releases for the store.
As the group grew, the name “Cheers” was adopted and a late Friday afternoon blind tasting (not evaluation) event began at a local restaurant where each member brought a bottle of their choice in a brown bag. While living in Southern California, these Friday Cheers tastings were always a treat for me, not only as a vinous escape, but even more for the friendships they engendered.
Since moving to Napa 20 years ago, the Friday tastings became a challenge to attend on any predictable basis. But Barbara and I always look forward to the fun-filled Cheers summer Zin-BBQ and December holiday dinner where we have a chance to share memorable times, great food and superb wines with some of our most treasured friends.
During those early Cheers times, culinary pioneers Celestino Drago and Piero Selvaggio, had emerged onto the greater LA dining scene with authentic Italian cuisine and wines. At the time many thought of the neighborhood Italian restaurant as a straw-wrapped “fiasco” of Chianti sitting atop a red-checkered tablecloth with pizza, spaghetti and maybe a dinner salad.
The more adventurous eateries featured a Caesar salad as the “authentic” choice because it sounded, looked and tasted like something from Italy. However, it was actually Caesar Cardini who invented his eponymous salad in his Tijuana restaurant.
I’ve been privileged to be both a friend and fan of Celestino and Piero since the very early days of their respective restaurants. Fusing their family heritages and culinary histories from their native Sicily, Celestino and Piero have now combined forces as a “dynamic duo” at Drago Centro. Celestino is the founding executive chef/owner and Piero has joined him as managing partner.
were among the early pioneers of authentic Italian dining in the U.S. Celestino established Celestino’s in Beverly Hills followed by Drago in Santa Monica, several themed more casual ristorantes across the greater Los Angeles area, and the now epicurean institution of Drago Centro in downtown LA. Piero kicked-off his culinary career with the iconic restaurant Valentino in Santa Monica, first housed in more humble surroundings until an extensive remodel brought the restaurant to national and international attention.
Celestino’s mission was always to deliver authentic Italian cuisine impeccably prepared and presented. He is a master in the kitchen as well as a gregarious and welcoming host. His signature courses are artfully based on dishes from his native Sicily that over the years have grown far beyond and now encompass time-honored traditions from across the length and breadth of Italy.
Wine, and its seamless service, has always been a benchmark at all Celestino’s restaurants and his wine lists are impeccably created and geared to the house-style and cuisine offered. While focused on his culinary arts, Celestino has worked with his skilled sommelier teams to provide diners with a classic range of selections thoughtfully complementing his skilled hand in the kitchen.
Piero has always been the consummate restaurateur who attracted accomplished chefs to carry out the award-winning culinary side while he followed his passion for wine with a deep focus on Italy. Piero became one of the early and leading ambassadors of premium Italian wines in the U.S. and was repeatedly recognized for his efforts by many of Italy’s finest producers.
Under Piero’s vision and commitment, Valentino was inducted into Wine Spectator’s 1981 inaugural class of 13 prestigious Grand Award winning restaurants and remained in that position until the restaurant closed on New Year’s Eve 2018. A few of the other iconic members of that legendary class were Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Ernie’s in San Francisco, Narsai’s in Berkeley, Scandia in Los Angeles, Windows on the World and Spark’s Steak House in New York.
Planning our holiday dinner begins early in the year when fellow member, Helene Schneider Dobrer, contacts Drago Centro’s operations manager and special event director, Betty Cardenas. In addition to the detailed length of her “formal” title, she is both Celestino’s right and left hands, adeptly overseeing all of the logistic and planning details of each event.
Betty and Celestino crafted an outstanding menu and the call went out to Cheers members requesting two bottles of each wine representing one of Italy’s specific growing areas to match each course. Wine and food service was expertly overseen by lead waiter Colin East as all of us gathered in the Vault Room to enjoy an array of passed hors d’oeuvres accompanied by the only non-Italian wines of the evening.
The hors d’oeuvres and first course of thinly sliced veal loin with a tuna sauce and capers were accompanied by a delightful Champagne Barons de Rothschild and the benchmark Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. Both showed beautifully and each lent its own accent to the hors d’oeuvre selections and the elegant veal dish.
The next course of olive oil poached Artic char with a crispy risotto cake was beautifully complemented by a 2019 Tenuta la Pergola Arneis from the Roero region of Piedmont. The wine’s delicacy and minerality was the perfect foil for the understated savory character of the char and crunch of the risotto cake.
Next on the menu was a unique pasta course (you cannot go to Drago Centro without at least one pasta dish) of the rare Malloreddus noodle served with a robust lamb ragout. The wines for this dish were a study in contrast.
A 2012 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino showed its elegance, grace and finesse as a gentle back-drop to the dish while the bolder 2017 Piastraia Bolgari Superiore was more forward and emphasized the lamb’s savory side.
For the main course, we had the choice of a roasted New York steak with polenta, heirloom carrots and balsamic béarnaise or a roasted salmon with forbidden black rice and vegetable ragout. Both wines selected for this course represented a reach back in time and exhibited the harmonizing character of great Italian wines.
The 1999 Tignanello was drinking near its peak with redolent secondary aromatics of tobacco, cedar and moist forest floor along with lingering hints of black cherry on the palate. The 1990 Sorí Paitin Barbaresco (in magnum) was further along in the aging cycle with more welcoming secondary notes on the nose and palate and became a thought-provoking counterpoint to the Tignanello.
Choices for dessert included either a praline hazelnut chocolate mousse cake with raspberry cremeux and berries or a pear sorbet with biscotti. Here the 2009 Felsina Vinsanto del Chianti Classico was nothing short of amazing and – according to Piero – is one of the classic examples produced in the region. The palate was silken in texture exhibiting levels of depth and concentration that conjured up for me great memories of other laudable dessert wines.
Notes of air-dried fruit on the nose elicited memories of a classic Amarone, its body and mouthfeel were similar to those of a fine Sauternes while its depth and concentration reminded me of a well-aged Tawny Port.
But, this was Vinsanto, on its own and at its best. And if one thinks that the wine itself is mouthwatering and glorious, try following the age-old tradition of biting into the biscotti after a dip into the glass for a truly memorable treat.
Over the last several decades, I have always valued my lasting friendships with fellow Cheers members, Celestino and Piero. This year’s holiday celebration brought everything together and was even more fulfilling. The evening was a testimony to long lasting friendships that shine even more brightly when surrounded by great times, memorable cuisine and splendid wines.
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 40 years.