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Celestino Drago's haven at home, his backyard kitchen

December 23, 2011 | 10:01 am

Celestino Drago beehive
Walk in the front door of chef Celestino Drago's Sherman Oaks home, through the soaring foyer and the wide-open designer kitchen and out the back door, and you might think you've shape-shifted your way to the Italian countryside.

Celestino Drago pizza“The best thing for me is when it's Sunday and I am here with the kids in the garden, picking what I want to go and cook,” says the chef, whose restaurant Drago Santa Monica just celebrated its 20th anniversary. That could mean a simple pasta with cherry tomatoes and basil. Or vegetables to grill with chicken or fish.

PHOTO GALLERY: Drago's backyard kitchen

Drago seems fairly indifferent to his indoor kitchen, though it's the sort of room that agents use to sell a house. “To be honest, we don't use the one in the house much,” he says.

No wonder. Outdoors, he has a huge beehive-shaped wood-burning oven, a massive dining table and everything else necessary for cooking and eating. Drago can look out, past the pool, to the hills. Or he can sit and watch one of two flat screens set high on walls at either end of the long, rectangular, open-sided room.

His wife, Leslie, he says, is “the breakfast queen. She makes it all fresh.” She also makes the school lunches for their two teenage daughters.

“That's why I never go inside,” he says, adding with a joking smile, “I can keep peace with my wife.”

Drago and his family moved into the house four years ago; the previous owner built it about eight years ago, he says. It's got a wine cellar and an adjacent room that would be a perfect poker hideout.

Celestino Drago kitchen
But the outdoor kitchen is what feels like the family retreat, a place for spending long hours over meals and conversation. It's where Drago makes bread and beef, grills fish and roasts vegetables and suckling pig. That last item rather horrified his family, says Drago, who also took heat when he brought a pheasant home from a hunting trip.

As a chef, he's more philosophical about the animals that become dinner, but he recognizes that children see it another way: When the Dragos went to Italy to visit his family, a new litter of the black pigs of the Nebrodi mountains had been born. One of his daughters took the runt, fed it goat's milk and nurtured it to join its siblings. No wonder she wasn't entranced with a suckling feast.

The pizza oven is the sort of thing that long ago would have been built first, and a house would have gone up around it. Drago had his brought to California from Italy in five pieces and then installed at one end of the outdoor kitchen. It's a creamy yellow, with a generous stone working space on both sides of its iron doors.

His 76-year-old mother taught him just how much the wood should burn before it's ready for cooking. Drago says he pushes the fire to the left and right of center to control the heat, and cleans ash away with a wet towel on a stick.

“It's not an easy thing to just put it on,” Drago says. Sometimes, he starts the fire the day before to make sure the whole interior chamber is hot enough.

Many foods are cooked here: steaks and other meat, small loaves of ciabatta, fish and, of course, pizza, which gets set directly on the refractory cement. He sometimes soaks a clay pot in water for cooking moist rabbit or chicken.

A metal pizza paddle is stored nearby. A tray holding salt and pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil is just as handy. And in a shed to one side of the oven and in a nook underneath, there's storage for wood.

When the food is done, it moves to a walnut-colored travertine island for a buffet, or a small matching table at the other end of the room, or a wooden table that seats 24 in a pinch. Plenty of people often share the table. Drago is the oldest of eight children, and three of his brothers and one sister have moved to L.A. All five are in the restaurant business.

“Cooking at home is not like cooking in the restaurant. You can put everything out and relax,” Drago says. Relax. That's the main theme of this kitchen, at least for Drago, who has four restaurants, a bakery and a catering operation. Not only is he undaunted by the rotisserie or the smoker, but he also finds them fun.

Two Viking burners are available, as well as a gas grill and an industrial hood to carry smoke away from cooks and guests. The kitchen has a dishwasher, sink and two small refrigerators, hidden behind wood doors.

A Gulliver-size fireplace, with a colorful ceramic plate depicting the sun hanging above and two iron arms that swing into and out of the fire, draws the eye to the center of the room. Drago sometimes hangs copper pots on the arms to cook polenta. He's made ricotta cheese over the fire too.

The pavilion-like room has a telephone, a big hanging market scale and curtains to keep out the wind. A chandelier hangs overhead. There are some potted plants and candles around the room, but, Drago says, “I don't like having things out.”

Little decoration is needed: Just through the room's arches is Drago's prized garden, which winds in narrow rows around the pool and the edges of the yard.

The list of foods he grows is long: tomato, lemon, zucchini, cucumber, artichoke, arugula, herbs, eggplant, orange, blood orange, apple, pomegranate, passion fruit, pepper, grapes. He grows Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet grapes for fun and because the vines are pretty.

Just in case anyone misses the point of this kitchen and its surroundings, Drago makes it one more time: The previous afternoon, he got a cigar, a glass of wine and watched football. Ahh, relaxation.

-- Mary MacVean

Mission: Kitchen is a series of chef's kitchen profiles, product reviews and consumer guides. Comments: mary.macvean@latimes.com.

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Photos: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

 

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