Union, practically unmarked along its namesake Union Ave. in the heart of Pasadena, has maintained quite the stir across the community since its opening years ago. But this modern Italian eatery has only picked up steam, its modest quarters packed so tightly that another body would inevitably exceed building capacity. So what is it about Union that has people waiting past 10pm for a table?
The answer to that question, at least as of late, is Executive Chef Christopher Keyser. He takes the helm under Owner Marie Petulla’s mantra of sustainable ingredients and, incredibly, complete in-house production. That means everything from house-made pastas all the way down to house-made cheese and butter. And while the menu doesn’t exactly overwhelm you with options, its breadth is impressive given the tremendous effort needed to create nearly every new ingredient. But create is Keyser’s culinary middle name, and he has certainly mastered his craft.
Case in point with the wild mushrooms, a mind-blowing compilation of its flagship ingredient mixed elegantly into a creamy, velvety, heavenly and wildly addictive polenta and coated with a generous coat of house-made Parmesan. Going on record to list this as one of the top dishes in all of Los Angeles. Keyser’s magic keeps going with a perfectly charred octopus, robust and meaty with a lobster jus to boost its character. Then there’s the pork meatballs, huge and confidently devout of filler, served with house-baked bread.
Union’s pastas are as forward-thinking as they are decadent, and while they hold only loose ties to their Italian origin, they fit in perfectly with Union’s ‘so LA’ approach. The bucatini is a clear winner, perfectly textured with coarse almonds that add an earthy, smoky essence that triggers grand nostalgia, though it’s doubtful that mom or grandma necessarily churned out anything like this [don’t take it personally]. The squid ink lumache, one of the Union’s signatures, is certainly novel and the lobster much appreciated, though the bucatini may still take the cake.
Carnivores should definitely order the lamb al latte, or milk-braised lamb shoulder. The salt balance is perfected to just about the grain, and the finished product melts in your mouth.
Pair anything with a selection from a deep wine list, where knowledgeable servers are more than happy to help make the perfect selection. And for dessert, they take that addictive polenta, add sugar and turn it into a budino.
Union is located at 37 Union St, Pasadena, CA 91103. Open 5 – 11p Mon – Fri, 4 – 11p Sat, 4 – 10p Sun. Avg. Out-the-door price for starter, entree, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$105/person. For more information visit UnionPasadena.com.
Celestino Ristorante and Bar, like much of the historic Pasadena neighborhood where it resides, is as iconic as it is ageless. For more than 20 years, locals have made Celestino their second home while fortunate travelers become quickly acquainted with the restaurant’s never-ending hustle and bustle and thick-accented servers taking them in like family. Owner Calogero Drago turns out seasonal Italian cuisine with deep flavor and decadent character to boot. But it’s the ambiance that perfectly garnishes a Celestino meal, whether it be in the old-style Italian dining room or fairytale-like patio.
Pasta is unquestionably mandatory at Celestino, where centuries-old favorites mix and mingle with just a few new-age and seasonal touchups, delivering all the rustic, nostalgic and authentic appeal you’re looking for with some excitement thrown in to remind you that Drago keeps a finger on the pulse of progressive cooking. Take the tortelloni di zucci al burro e salvia, or thick tortelloni pasta stuffed with pumpkin and cream, bathed in a decadent butter and sage sauce. How about the risotto al nero di sepia alla veneziana, or risotto blackened with squid ink and melded into a smattering of baby scallops and calamari. Close your eyes and you can picture cobblestone streets, winding canals or Tuscan countryside, whichever suits your fancy.
Celestino’s seasonal menu happened to feature mushrooms and truffles, with an extensive lineup of spectacular creations that took each ingredient to new heights. Drago’s mushroom-stuffed gnocchi, topped with shaved black truffle and finished with a rich cheese sauce, may be among the best gnocchi dishes in Los Angeles. Heavenly pappardelle and porcini mushroom soup were just a few more favorites.
Of course Celestino holds strong on its carne e pesci, or meat and seafood dishes as well. Ossobuco is a no-brainer at an Italian fine dining establishment, and Celestino’s take embodies all the timeless characteristics of fall-off-the-bone veal and delightful saffron risotto. Pair it with a wine off Celestino’s many Italian selections [their pours are incredible], or perhaps a classic oh-so-strong martini.
Any Italian mother would mock you for skipping out on dessert here, where the panna cotta and the vanilla pistachio torte will replace any stomach capacity you may have had left with yet another tasteful memory.
Celestino Ristorante & Bar is located at 141 S Lake Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101. Open 11:30a – 2:30p, 5:30 – 10:30p Mon, 11:30a – 2:30p, 5 – 10:30p Tue – Thu, 11:30a – 2:30p, 5:30 – 11p Fri, 5 – 11p Sat and 5 – 9:45p Sun. Avg. Out-the-door price for appetizer, entree, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$110/person. For more information visit CelestinoPasadena.com.
The chaos of clustered tables and tasteful music seamlessly comes together with the sight of servers weaving their way through the crowds, in and out of the fishbowl kitchen, where tomato cans, citrus baskets and sugar boxes decorate an even more fast-paced scene. It’s classic LA, and as always you can’t believe the place is this packed on a Tuesday night [does anyone have a family in this town?]. But it’s fun, friendly, upbeat, with everyone at the heated outdoor patio and the communal bar tables doing as the Italians do: sharing camaraderie over food.
North Italia, which is rapidly expanding with locations across the US, prides itself in cooking from scratch. Everything down to the pizza dough and pasta is done in-house, a tall order considering that the menu is substantially broader than what you’ll find in your typical trattoria. From there, North Italia brings in a touch of American influence to make things interesting, adding a few extra ingredients here and there for a progressive approach to classic Italian.
Take their garlic bread, which reinvents the timeless dish by piling two-bite bread cubes into a cast-iron, dousing it in butter, olive and truffle oil, then baking it with mozzarella and ricotta. The result is a small mountain of decadence, perfectly textured. Then there’s the roasted mushroom tortelloni, impossibly meaty in a rich cream sauce, complemented with hazelnut and caramelized sweet potato. And the diver scallops, cooked perfectly with butternut squash, luscious Parmesan risotto and a sprinkling of pancetta. Pair it with something from the Italian wine list, or a cocktail that’s crafted as creatively as it’s named.
There are some growing pains as well that North Italia will inevitably get through. Not all the inventive ingredient compilations came together, namely in a short rib radiatori with an overpowering touch of horseradish [that short rib was excellent though!], and a branzino that was cooked well but lacked a necessary touch of garlic, richness or really anything else to give it flavor. Then there’s the matter of service, where staff are incredibly friendly and well-intentioned, but may all the same make you wait for a full hour between courses.
You’ll finish on a good note though. That salted caramel budino and hazelnut torta are primed for indulgence.
North Italia’s Santa Monica location is located at 1442 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Open 11a – 9p Sun – Thu, 11a – 10p Fri/Sat. Avg. out-the-door cost for split appetizer, entrée, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$105/person. For more information call (310) 382 – 2460 or visit NorthItaliaRestaurant.com.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.