It’s not the same old Drago. Like most high-end restaurants, it changes from time to time. And when I was last there I found a number of changes on the menu and in the staff.

That’s one of the problems of writing a review suggesting that one restaurant is the best in any way. The number of replies from readers goes way up. Everyone has his or her own opinion of what’s best. But the bigger problem is that in the restaurant business things change so often. Nothing stays the best forever.

For many years we thought Valentino restaurant was the best Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. More recently several of my friends and I considered Lago to be the best, although closely tied to regional northern Italian food.

But the chef at Lago has disappeared (one rumor is that he went to La Botte) and the new chef may or may not keep up the old standards.

One top contender for the title of top Italian restaurant in Santa Monica is Drago. It’s certainly been there long enough, and it’s a very nice space. Celestino Drago opened the Santa Monica branch 20 years ago, and now it is one of four. The cuisine is Italian eclectic, with a few innovative features.

As an example of how Celestino Drago upgrades the restaurant on a regular basis, the last time I was there, in August of this year, we had a talk about salmon. Celestino had just returned from a trip to Vancouver to examine a new salmon farm. He was excited at the quality he found, and plans to use their product in his restaurant.

The personnel do not get very high marks on the Internet for friendliness, but that may be a cultural difference. The fact is that the last three or four times I’ve eaten there I found the food to be spectacular, the people very friendly, and the ambiance refined and pleasant.

When last there we were treated to a little bite of something perhaps called an “arancino.” This turned out to be a small pyramid of cheese, rice and orange ragout in a fried batter. It was delicious and set off the lunch with just the right feeling.

Although the menu changes with the seasons, a few of the dishes are always available. One of my favorite dishes is the pappardelle with roasted pheasant and morels ($15). It’s a bit heavy, and requires a good solid red wine, and is particularly good on a cold day. But it’s a delicious dish and I don’t know anywhere else in Santa Monica where it is served.

Another dish that is more common, but particularly good here, is spaghetti ai frutti di mare ($19), which includes spaghetti, shrimp, bay scallops, squid, mussels and clams in a tomato garlic sauce. Each piece of seafood retains its individuality, and the sauce is particularly flavorful. This is one of the innovative dishes, since the sauce has a touch of red pepper and curry powder, which is hard to identify but gives the sauce a wonderful round and complex flavor.

There is plenty of selection from the menu, including such favorites as branzino ($24) and tortelloni in sage and butter sauce, one of the many Italian dishes brought into Italy from Jewish immigrants in the 12th through 15th centuries.

There are a number of real Italian desserts, such as the pistachio panna cotta I had a few months ago, creamy with a mild pistachio flavor. It was topped with sweet cherries and a garnish of candied pistachios.

There is a 14-page wine list with a good, eclectic selection, but primarily Italian. The prices are not for the faint of heart, but Celestino says that inexpensive wines don’t sell there. So, if you should want a good Brunello for example, there are a half dozen or so on the list, mostly from good vintages, but be prepared to spend about $150 or so. On the other hand, the wines by the glass are excellent; for a white I recommend the Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and for a red I suggest the Tuscan syrah.

The clientele is a bit up-scale, and older, although at lunch one sees a number of doctors and employees from the hospital nearby. Parking is very difficult, and using the valet adds another $5.50 or more to the cost of lunch. It’s cheaper to pay $3 across the street at the Pacific Dining car lot.

I find the pasta here to be close to what I get in Italy. The noise level is well below the average and the prices are also considerably less than in the high-end Italian restaurants on San Vicente Avenue in Brentwood.

So, for the moment, if you get a craving for Italian food, Drago is a good choice. Maybe the best choice?

If you go

Drago Santa Monica

2628 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif.

90403

(310) 828-1585

www.celestinodrago.com/DragoSantaMonica/

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com