Some people learn to cook out of inspiration, others from desperation. For chef Celestino Drago, it was a little of both. Drago relives his early years in Sicily with LAist today, placing us in the haze of a pastoral nostalgia that could form the script for a culinary Cinema Paraiso one day, if any of you screenwriters are listening. Drago, a country boy and the oldest of eight kids, recalls his sweetest memories of eating being those with his humble family, munching mama’s arancini, a rice ball often sold as a street food. “Lunch or dinner in Sicily is a feast. It’s the highlight of the day,” Drago says.
With nine mouths to feed and his parents farming all day, Drago started cooking as soon as he could pitch in. “I remember when I was old enough to start putting little pots on the gas stove…Then when my parents came home the water was already boiling and we wouldn’t have to wait too long to cook the pasta,” he continues.
But when it came to influencing his own family dinner table and stepping onto the long road that lead to his restaurant empire, Drago was simply looking for better food around the house. He admits, “I remember I was getting bored of my mom’s food because she was making the same things all the time. The pasta with bits of basil was done one way. The baked pasta was always done the same…So when she wasn’t looking, I would slice some sausage and I would throw it in the tomato sauce. I would chop little cubes of a hard cheese and I would put it inside. She would ask, “Why are you doing that?” I guess it was in my blood, to create.” Seeing as street food is all the rage these days, maybe chef Celestino can introduce the O.C. to arancini when he opens his next project, the family-friendly Osteria Drago in Newport’s Fashion Island.