The best way to get a response to an article is to say something is the “best,” or create a list of the “best,” like the best Italian restaurant, or the best hamburger. Those two always seem to get a rise out of folks.

So when I wrote that Locanda del Lago is perhaps the best Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, I was pleased that a number of people sent e-mails suggesting their favorites — which were not necessarily my favorites.

I had been to almost all of the recommended spots, and had already ruled them out. But then someone mentioned Drago on Wilshire Boulevard. I realized I hadn’t been there for a long time, so I went back there for dinner. It was even better than I had remembered.

The service was first class. Silvio Cicconi, the general manager, was there to check on the waiter, a nice young man from Washington state, every few minutes. At my wife’s request, we were seated in a quiet area. The music was just right.

I had one of the special truffled pasta dishes. While this years’ crop of white truffles are not as flavorful as most years, the dish was still excellent and brought back memories of the many similar dishes we’ve shared in the Piedmont region of Italy. The main difference was the price of the truffle.

There were lots of other fine dishes, including a very fresh sea bass, and wide pasta with wild boar sauce. The menu is extensive, and authentic.

The wine list was extensive, and populated with way too many wines beyond my financial abilities, but there were a few that were from good years and reasonably priced. The list could use a few more of the wonderful, inexpensive wines available now from a number of local importers who have lowered prices during the recession.

After this dinner I began to think maybe the e-mail I got was right, and this is the best Italian restaurant in Santa Monica. I felt a bit like my dad, who, after every good meal, would say, “That was the best meal l ever had.”

I enjoyed the meal so much that when a colleague called to meet for lunch in Beverly Hills, I suggested lunch at the Drago restaurant there, on Canon drive. That was a mistake.

In a row of busy Italian restaurants, Drago Beverly Hills was virtually empty. That was good for me because it was relatively quiet and we could hear each other talk. Except for the music. I’m not sure what it was, but it was offensive. But I ignored it because I often find restaurant music too loud and offensive. They often turn it up when the restaurants are not crowded so it doesn’t seem so empty.

I ordered a glass of wine, which I noticed on the wine list was from 2007, a particularly good recent year followed by the less favorable 2008. I especially asked the waitress, who is studying to become an actress (naturally), to be sure that the bottle was freshly opened. When the glass arrived and I tasted it I knew that couldn’t be it, so I asked to see the bottle. The bottle was a 2008, and almost empty. So I called over the manager and asked him if he thought that was appropriate for restaurant service. He said he thought it was OK, since one wine of that price was pretty much like another. He didn’t offer to exchange it.

So we ordered. I ordered the black squid ink pasta with seafood, one of my favorite Italian dishes. When it came, the pasta had good flavor, but was luke warm, and the seafood in it was cold. My companion said that her calamari were also not very warm.

I asked for a double espresso with two biscotti for dessert, and they brought out two huge plates with about six biscotti and four chocolate chip cookies.

Somehow, I had the feeling that no one heard me, no one cared, and no one is watching the store. But the waitress was really cute and very nice, and if I’m ever in the movie business I would hire her.

“What’s in a name?” they say. I would say that with restaurants, the name doesn’t tell you much. It’s what’s inside that counts.

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

If You Go

Drago Santa Monica

2628 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif., 90404

(310) 828-1585

Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday dinner only.

Drago Beverly Hills.

Forget about it.

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