One of LA’s most storied restaurateurs, Piero Selvaggio, is back in the city after a stint at Louie’s by the Bay in Newport Beach. The Valentino restaurant founder is the new managing partner of Drago Centro, Celestino Drago’s flagship Italian restaurant in Downtown LA’s once-bustling Financial District. Selvaggio is now overseeing the front-of-house operations of Drago Centro, working with Drago himself to produce an updated, upscale Italian menu tailored for outdoor dining.
Both Selvaggio and Drago have known each other for decades, wondering at the possibility of a partnership. With Valentino closing in 2018 after a 45 year run and Drago continuing to operate a restaurant empire in Los Angeles (including Il Pastaio, Celestino, and Drago Ristorante), it seemed an opportune time to bring Selvaggio’s charming, suave style back to Los Angeles.
Drago Centro has recently seen a significant dropoff in normal business due to its placement in the heart of LA’s central business district, with bankers and lawyers in City National Plaza staying at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Drago Centro reopened with a newly laid out outdoor dining area in late July hoping to draw diners itching for a full-service Italian meal with pastas, grilled octopus, and pan-roasted branzino.
On the partnership, Selvaggio exhibited his typical optimism at the opportunity: “I am very excited to bring Drago Centro to the next level in time. Celestino and I understand each other completely and we are focusing on the future of dining in Los Angeles.” Drago Centro has always been the biggest, most ambitious of Celestino Drago’s well-executed but somewhat predictable Italian restaurants, with expense account prices, big wine lists, and more formal service. “It is more my style of service, and after 50 years I missed my customers and my friends, so this seemed like a perfect fit,” said Selvaggio.
Selvaggio originally moved down to Newport Beach because his wife, a physician, was transferred to a hospital in Orange County (that commute to Santa Monica’s Valentino was unbearable). He came on as a consultant for Ron Salisbury’s Louie’s by the Bay in its opening phase in 2018. An OC Register story characterized the partnership as one defined by a long friendship between Salisbury and Selvaggio. Selvaggio and his family moved back after his wife transferred again to Cedars Sinai hospital, giving the longtime restaurateur and maitre d’ another chance at the LA restaurant industry.
With the challenges of the pandemic putting pressure on the business meals that were the main source of Drago Centro’s revenue, one wonders how the restaurant will adapt in coming months. With Selvaggio’s decades of experience, hopefully Drago Centro will serve compelling Italian fare that will feel almost like a throw-back to halcyon pre-pandemic days. In Valentino, Selvaggio helped pioneer a white tablecloth Italian restaurant that largely didn’t exist in the early 1970s in America, introducing things like fresh pasta, white truffles, and other specialties that are now mainstays on modern Italian menus.
On how Drago is dealing with the drop in business diners, Selvaggio says, “Luckily, our landlord has been very supportive and accommodating, so we feel very fortunate that we can work knowing we will not have to close tomorrow. But, in lean times such as this, we have to be as careful as possible and we must focus on making every guest extremely happy and we are also trying to support our staff as best we can as well.”
Drago Centro itself opened in just at the start of the Great Recession in 2008, adapting multiple times to address a changing dining public. Nearly twelve years later, Selvaggio hopes his knowledge and experience can help a big-name LA restaurant come back to its feet: “We are seeing things improve little by little and I like to say that we are trying to provide enough bread for everyone to survive right now and while focusing on building toward better days ahead.”