Is it fair to judge a new restaurant by one dish? Because as much as I would like to concentrate on the fried cauliflower or delicious crab crostino with lardo at Bucato, the new restaurant from Evan Funke, whom you may remember from his term at Rustic Canyon, I am finding it difficult to move beyond the idea of his version of cacio e pepe, a Roman standard that is nothing more than spaghetti tossed with sheep cheese and a lot of cracked pepper. Cacio e pepe may be both the simplest and most difficult pasta in the Italian repertoire, and from it you can learn almost everything about a cook. I've cooked the dish a hundred times at home, and I think I've gotten it right maybe three or four times.
Purists maintain that real cacio e pepe must always be cooked a few seconds short of al dente, to a stage sometimes called iron string, or filo di ferro, at which point a tiny thread of uncooked pasta still runs down the center of the spaghetti. (Colman Andrews quoted the late restaurateur Mauro Vincenti on this years ago in The Times.) When you get a bowl of cacio e pepe at a proper trattoria in Rome, the spaghetti is often so stiff that it barely bends.
The cheese, usually a sharp pecorino Romano, may be blended into a creamy sauce with a spoonful of the starchy cooking water, or tiny, half-melted chunks may cling to the pasta like gravel: This is up to the cook. Some chefs like to plump out the sauce with butter, oil or dairy, but I tend to consider this something of a culture crime, transforming the severe, lovely austerity of the dish into dumb, creamy luxury. Cacio e pepe, hard and spicy, is supposed to hurt.
But Funke's cacio e pepe breaks almost every rule. Instead of using die-cut dried pasta, he makes the dish with spaghetti alla chitarra, fresh pasta cut into strands by pressing it through a device that looks a little like an autoharp. He cooks the pasta to a curly softness. The sauce is enriched with butter. It is served in a tiny portion, barely filling the center of an appetizer bowl rather than spilling out in Roman extravagance. Cracked pepper coats the spaghetti, but in this context the scent is more perfumed than punishing; almost exotic. As cacio e pepe, Funke's version fails. But as dinner, it is rather glorious.
Bucato is a new Italian restaurant in the old Beacon space in Culver City's Helms complex, joining Father's Office, Lukshon, Let's Be Frank and Sherry Yard's upcoming bakery and cafe in what has become a small restaurant row among the furniture stores occupying the former '30s-era industrial bakery. There is a scattering of tables around the open kitchen, but most of the action is in the big dining patios on either end of the restaurant, long wooden tables and sculptural heat lamps, and the pleasure of drinking genial Italian wines, such as Pigato and Cesanese, outdoors. The old neon Beacon sign, left over from the laundry that was in this space before it was colonized by Kazuto Matsusaka's late, splendid fusion restaurant, still shines overhead.
Funke's mission, broadly defined, is to combine strong pungencies and seasonal vegetables with the suppleness of fresh, well-cooked pasta — mixed by hand, rolled out by hand and shaped by hand in the pasta kitchen upstairs. His Italian training came in Emilia-Romagna, home to egg-enriched pasta, but the noodles he prefers are made with only flour, water and salt — hand-rolled pici, like thick Tuscan spaghetti, with a long-cooked rabbit sauce; corzetti, flexible pasta coins from Liguria, embossed with fleur-de-lis from wooden stamps, with a mortar-ground walnut sauce; macaroni di busa, a curly shape from Sardinia, with a crumbly white ragù and wild fennel; and gnocchetti, tiny ridged shells, with pesto and aged pecorino.
Sometimes an egg pasta will sneak into the mix, like the wide pappardelle in a lamb sauce or the narrow tagliatelle with a rich Bolognese, but his aesthetic is basically the same: modest portions of noodles cooked to a point just past al dente, and sauces fortified with a bit of butter, a touch of sharp cheese and a healthy pinch of salt. It is almost a surprise when you run into the occasional dud, like a cloddish orecchiette with sausage and sprouting broccoli.
You will probably want to try the breads here, which include a sturdy baguette with delicious goat butter; tigelle, rustic knish-sized flatbreads from Emilia-Romagna with a spiced lardo paste; and rounds of focaccia, which taste a lot here like yeasted dinner rolls. The bitter greens, radicchio and dandelion mostly, are served warm, tossed with pine nuts, dates and pecorino cheese. The sprouting broccoli that didn't quite work with the orecchiette is brilliant as a vegetable, sautéed with pickled chiles and lots of garlic. Life is good.
Surprisingly, given Funke's reputation at Rustic Canyon and a pop-up run with a porchetta truck, meats seem almost an afterthought here: an enormous rib-eye steak curiously bland (and the shaved truffles with its accompanying roast potatoes utterly without flavor), and porcini-dusted sweetbreads a bit mushy. The thinly sliced porchetta is a little bouncier than it should be, more like cured pork belly than what you may think of as porchetta, although the smack of fennel and salt comes through vividly, and the meat is layered on a slab of lardo-smeared toast.
But Bucato is a great place to stop in for a glass of Vermentino and a snack, perhaps fried squash blossoms stuffed with goat ricotta, or fried artichokes with lemon, or figs with burrata. And on the patio on a warm night, looking out onto the Helms plaza, nibbling on a plate of grilled octopus tentacles in a juicy puttanesca sauce or a bowl of Basilicata-style strascinati with braised duck, it is easy to imagine that you are on the terrace of a country restaurant in Italy, on the outskirts of a forgotten hill town, relaxed after a half-hour drive.
At such a time, you will be glad the restaurant enforces a strict no-cellphone policy.
Evan Funke brings the Italian countryside — and great pasta — to Culver City.
3280 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 876-0286, bucatola.com
Breads, $4-$5; snacks, $9-$12; pastas, $13-$16; vegetables, $9-$17; meat and fish, $9-$23.
Open 5-10:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays to Thursdays; 5-11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (closed Mondays). Brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking in Helms complex.
Tigelle with beaten lardo; cacio e pepe, fried squash blossoms; corzetti with walnut pesto; macaroni di busa with ragù bianco; fried cauliflower; Dungeness crab crostino.
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