You have managed to land a reservation at Felix Trattoria. You find a parking space on the crowded north end of Abbot Kinney. You ease your way through the clot of Negroni enthusiasts at the bar, check in at the hostess stand, and are led into the airy main dining room, the longtime bistro Joe’s given a smart face-lift and a vacation in Venice, Italy. Your line of sight, unless you are unlucky enough to face the wall, includes the pasta-fabricating room, a clean, glassed-in space devoted to the production of noodles.
“#@&!YOURPASTAMACHINE,” reads a sign affixed to a sheet of metal. Even if you have never been to the restaurant, this sign, spelled less euphemistically, probably haunts your Instagram feed.
Evan Funke will probably be in the pasta room for most of your visit, rolling out huge sheets of pasta with a long, wooden dowel, fluffing the edges, dusting them with flour, aiming big electric fans at them to help them dry. In another corner of the room, a cook presses dough around her thumb into Pugliese orecchiette. Funke flips his dough, redusts it, folds it into a plastic sheet. The other cook flicks out twisted Genoese-style trofie. Funke slashes deftly with a long, Damascene-etched blade. You notice a new pile of cavatelli on the opposite counter. You could probably watch this noodle ballet all night.
A puff of hot sfincione bread lands on your table, lightly crisp on the outside and soft as an angel biscuit, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt, dotted with lightly charred blades of rosemary. If you have arranged it, there may be whipped lardo and herbs, “pesto modenese,” to smear on your bread. You should be drinking something by now — the wine list is priced a bit high but is rich in the mildly funky Italian wines that go well with Funke’s rich, peppery cooking, things like a lovely, deep-orange Oslavje from Friuli’s Radikon, a Collio Bianco from Edi Keber, or the stunning Macchiona from La Stoppa, near the outskirts of Piacenza, that tastes almost like a fine, old Barolo spiked with Worcestershire sauce. You are in the right place. The people you have brought here are happy.
If you follow restaurants in Los Angeles, you have probably eaten Funke’s cooking more than once. He was the chef at Rustic Canyon at the point that it became well known for its produce-centered Mediterranean cooking. He operated a porchetta truck that tantalized the Westside for a bit. He was the chef at Bucato, a restaurant famous for its celebration of fresh pasta, and his style of pasta — unyielding, a bit stiff, stubbornly made by hand — has been quite influential in local Italian kitchens, including some of the best ones.
He likes butter and rowdy herbs, bitter greens and stinging quantities of black pepper. Meat is his friend — at Felix he is getting his pork from Peads and Barnetts and his steaks from Napa’s Five Dot Ranch, which raises probably the best grass-fed beef in California. His servers are happy to tell you about the sustainable guanciale he gets from Iowa’s La Quercia, the provenance of the flour, and the super-nutty five-year Parmigiano-Reggiano.
So you may start out with plates of fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella, a salad of sliced chicories sweetened with pine nuts and dates, or sautéed peppers tossed with toasted breadcrumbs and a hint of dried fish roe. The minuscule local shrimp dressed simply with oil, lemon and a few snips of herbs are nice. If they’re on the menu, the baby artichokes fried in the Roman Jewish style, crisp but meltingly tender, flavored with lemon and a bit of fresh mint, may be the best version of the dish I’ve ever had in Los Angeles.
Still, you’re waiting for the pasta. The tiny stuffed tortellini in light broth are impeccable, singing with the flavors of cured meat and good cheese, and the pappardelle in a classic Bolognese-style meat ragù are correctly thin and springy. Funke is sparing with his sauces in the very best way; the flavors cling to each bite without overwhelming the taste of the noodles themselves. One night, I liked a special of soft, gooey strappatelle, a peasanty bread-dough dumpling from southern Umbria, prepared cacio e pepe, with a mouth-shattering jolt of black pepper and sharp cheese.
But Funke’s aesthetic, for all of its popularity, may not be your own, especially when he is using his own, freshly made pasta in place of extruded shapes like spaghetti, rigatoni and bigoli that in Italy as in the United States are usually sold dried. I admire his “alla gricia,” a simple Roman sauce of guanciale, pecorino and lots of black pepper, but the mezze maniche, “half-sleeves,” are more or less inflexible tubes, hard at the center, that become grainy when you chew them. The rigatoni in an admirable Amatriciana sauce, the orecchiette with a lovely sauce of sausage and sweet broccoli di ciccio, and the thick spaghettone alla Norma with tomatoes and beautifully sautéed eggplant were the same — wet, yet distractingly hard. Funke’s pale, cheese-intensive pesto is worthy, but the stiff trofie they coat perhaps less so. The ultrafirm texture is definitely his house style — you could interpret it as an extreme interpretation of what Italians call “al dente,” cooked to provide resistance to the tooth — and it is consistent, but it also distracts from what should be beautiful cooking.
Should you move past the pasta to the grilled octopus tentacles smeared with herbs, worth it for the crunchy new potatoes alone, or the big pork shoulder chop with peaches, or the magnificent grass-fed bistecca Fiorentina, which may cost $150 but will satiate four? (The half-chicken, cooked into boneless rollatines stuffed with mushrooms, is pretty but bland, the kind of thing you see a lot at too-fancy restaurants in Italy.) Are the tiny grilled red peppers both luscious and sweet? Is the braised fennel crusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano delicious? Will you finish with a tiramisu? Felix is an easy place to be happy.
Evan Funke opens a swank pasta palace in Venice
1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (424) 387-8622, felixla.com.
Appetizers $12-$18; pizzas $20-$24; pastas $20-$26; main courses $24-$33 (much more for steaks); desserts $10-$14.
Dinner Sun.-Thurs., 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and nearby lot parking.
Sfincione; fried artichokes; pappardelle; grilled octopus; bistecca alla fiorentina.
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