Alison Brie knows her pasta. On a recent evening, the actress sits at a table inside Osteria la Buca, studying a bowl of cacio e pepe. The noodles are in a tangled heap with a textbook-perfect coating of pasta water, good pecorino Romano and black pepper clinging to each strand. She uses her fork to carefully twirl a noodle and examine it thoughtfully. This is the first bite Brie will take on a three-restaurant, 5½-hour, 10-bowl pasta crawl.
“The cacio e pepe here is delicious,” she says after taking a taste. “They call it spaghetti, but the thickness actually makes me think of pici, a type of pasta I only had in Italy. I would describe it as a fat spaghetti, so actually I think this is a pici cacio e pepe.”
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She pauses to take another bite.
“You didn’t realize you were eating pasta with the pasta master herself,” she says with a grin.
5:25 p.m. Osteria la Buca
Our server at Osteria la Buca presents an order of green, crescent-moon-shaped mezzelune, the second dish to appear at the start of our pasta crawl. Nestled underneath and all around are plump English peas and tender morel mushrooms with a few sprigs of chocolate mint and a sprinkle of Parmesan. It reminds Brie of a pasta dish she had while filming her new movie, “Spin Me Round.”
Brie, who is best known for her roles in the TV series “Mad Men,” “Community” and “Glow,” has eaten a lot of pasta over the past year, spending months in Italy for “Spin Me Round” (now in theaters and on demand), which she co-wrote and produced with director Jeff Baena. It’s a film that centers on managers of a fictional Italian American restaurant chain called Tuscan Grove, and an eventful company trip to Italy. Things quickly go awry as hilarity and adventure ensues.
There’s food in the movie, in the form of a Bolognese that never quite materializes and plastic bags full of corporate-engineered Alfredo sauce, but it’s far from a movie about food. The premise was inspired by a story Baena read about a manager at an Italian chain restaurant — OK, it was Olive Garden — who, like Brie’s character, was sent to Italy on a learning work trip that turned out to be full of other Americans and where the main educational component was a demonstration on how to make Bolognese.
There was no culinary training of any kind prior to filming (Brie says she did Google “how to make Bolognese”), and few scenes with actual cooking, but Brie and her co-stars spent months eating around Italy, enjoying bowls of pasta for lunch on shoot days and spending weekends driving to towns like Lucca or Pisa for dinner.
“One thing I did learn is that they don’t have alfredo — that’s not an Italian sauce,” she says. Or at least, it’s not an Italian sauce as the movie presents it. There was an Alfredo — Alfredo Di Lelio, who served pasta al burro (with butter, pasta cooking water and Parmesan) to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at his Rome restaurant — but it had no chicken, no garlic and definitely no cream, as so many American restaurants make it.
In one scene of “Spin Me Round,” an employee making pasta alfredo squeezes a thick, gloppy white goo out of a giant Capri Sun-style silver pouch onto a heap of noodles.
“We had a really hard time because it’s not like we could source alfredo sauce while we were in Italy,” she says. “I have no idea what that was. We didn’t make anyone eat it.” But it has been getting attention in reviews and on social media. Brie says, “I’m glad people have been getting a real kick out of our alfredo sauce.”
Brie’s other challenge while filming was finding a location in Italy for the Tuscan Grove restaurant her character manages in the movie. What looks like one of many drab shopping centers in Bakersfield is actually a building in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region outside Modena. There she and her crew successfully re-created a kind of Italian American chain aesthetic that meshes the Panera-like neighborhood restaurant feel with the hokey stereotypical red-sauce vibe of a Bucca di Beppo.
“We really just had that one article to go off of in terms of research,” she says. “But I grew up in L.A., I went to college at CalArts in Valencia, California, the capital of chain restaurants and mini-malls, and as Americans, I feel like we inherently know what that aesthetic is.
“The best thing I ate that entire trip was in Verona, it was just a simple pasta with peas and they were so fat in like a butter sauce,” she says.
Next, she thrusts her fork into a plate of pale lemon pistachio tagliatelle.
“Oh, my God, that’s the one,” she exclaims. “I love how light and lemony the sauce is. And the pistachios!”
6:15 p.m. Mother Wolf
Brie plops down into a red leather booth and looks around the crowded room. It’s still early in the evening, but every seat is taken, and the softly lit dining room buzzes with conversation.
“I’m truly so titillated by the atmosphere,” she says. “I can’t wait to come back and get even a little more dressed up. It feels very elegant but still fresh and fun.”
This, she explains, is her first time at Evan Funke’s Hollywood restaurant Mother Wolf. His Venice restaurant Felix is one of Brie and husband Dave Franco’s favorites in the city. And for Brie, it wouldn’t be a proper pasta crawl without Funke’s handmade pasta.
“I just think he makes the best pasta in the United States,” she says.
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During quarantine, she and Franco frequented Felix for Funke’s at-home dinner kits. She says the chef would text specific instructions on how to cook the pasta.
“It was so informative reading this paragraph from the chef to say something like ‘Salt the water until it’s as salty as the sea,’” says Brie. “I would imagine it was excruciating for him as a chef to be doing to-go boxes of his pasta and have it in the hands of humans like myself.”
Unable to visit one of his restaurants and not order the dish Funke helped catapult to cult status in Los Angeles, Brie orders tonnarelli cacio e pepe even though we just had an excellent bowl at our previous stop.
Cacio e pepe is everywhere. How this simple Italian dish with four ingredients became the dish of the moment.
“It looks promising,” she says when the bowl arrives. “I’m going to use a word that a lot of people don’t like. It looks moist. Why do people hate that word so much? The contrarian in me loves how much it bothers other people.”
Funke’s version is decidedly saucier than the first, with a more intense punch of pepper.
When the puttanesca arrives, Brie is sharing what she usually eats in a day. She starts with apple
sauce on the way to the gym, a protein shake post-workout and an afternoon snack of Greek yogurt with blueberries, walnuts and a drizzle of honey. For dinner, she often makes herself a ground turkey stir fry with eggplant, her favorite vegetable.
“All right guys, this is incredible,” she squeals. She’s just tried the puttanesca. “Oh, my God, the freshness of the tomato and the saltiness from the anchovy is so subtle. The olives are great and this is unlike any tomato sauce I’ve ever had.”
Funke’s puttanesca involves a thick sugo di pomodoro studded with cherry tomatoes strewn throughout, adding pops of fresh tomato to the sauce. He uses both black and green olives, and there are plenty of salty, briny anchovies too.
Before she digs into the arrabbiata, she introduces me to her “dot.”
“You see my dot when I eat spicy food,” she explains, pointing to a small area on her cheek, just off to the right of her mouth. ”It’s like a full circle here when I eat spicy food.”
The arrabbiata isn’t quite spicy enough for Brie’s dot to surface.
The spaghetti AOP, our final plate of pasta, smacks of garlic, oil, peperoncino and fresh herbs. The odor lingers as we make our way through the crowded dining room.
7:49 p.m. Antico Nuovo
As soon as Brie slides into her corner table at Antico Nuovo, she spots two friends a few parties over. Christopher Storer, the creator of the chef- centered drama series “The Bear” on FX, and Ayo Edebiri, one of the show’s stars, are dining together.
Chad Colby’s Larchmont restaurant is one Brie and Franco frequented during quarantine. There was a stretch when every Friday, the two would pick up pizza and ice cream as an end-of-the-week treat.
“I love that we started with Osteria la Buco, which is such a great neighborhood spot, then we went to Mother Wolf, which felt so extravagant, and now we’ve landed at a place that’s kind of like the melding of the two,” she says.
Brie decides to finish the evening with three more pastas: ravioli di nonna, piccola luna and foglie d’ulivo.
While we wait for the food, I ask whether Brie has ever worked at a restaurant, or thought about going into the food business. She spent some time after college working as a hostess at Santorini restaurant in Old Pasadena, but she’s not looking to become a celebrity restaurateur any time soon.
“We are so into food, and I would hate to make it work or business,” she says.
Brie gives me a rundown of her and her husband’s favorite places to eat, in addition to that day’s visits:
“The obsession with Found Oyster is so real,” she says.
She also frequents All Time in Los Feliz for the blueberry muffins and other pastries, Kismet and Kismet Rotisserie on Sunset Boulevard, Night + Market and Jitlada. The chile-triggered dot, she says, comes out at Jitlada.
Our three plates of pasta drop all at once, eliciting an excited gasp. The ravioli are delicate, limp pockets filled with ricotta in a simple tomato sauce with basil. The piccola luna are stuffed with sweet corn and served alongside chanterelles. And the foglie d’ulivo look like forest-green, leaf-shaped noodles, tossed with fire-roasted squab, crunchy squab cracklings and olives.
“The ravioli tastes like someone’s grandma made it,” Brie says.
A little after 9 p.m. our server clears the last plate of pasta. Brie sips her Lambrusco and decides on dessert. The strawberry ice cream is a must. We have to order the peach too. And how could she leave without trying the focaccia bread ice cream?
As she makes herself an ice cream sampler with all three flavors, I ask if she has a favorite pasta of the evening.
“Whichever one is in front of me at the moment,” she says.
Restaurants mentioned on Alison Brie's pasta crawl
The Pasta Crawl
Osteria la Buca, 5210 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 462-1900, osterialabuca.com
Mother Wolf, 1545 Wilcox Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 410-6060, motherwolfla.com
Antico Nuovo, 4653 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 510-3093, anticonuovo-la.com
More of Alison Brie’s L.A. Restaurant Favorites
All Time, 2040 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz, (323) 660-3868, alltimelosangeles.com
Found Oyster, 4880 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 522-6239, foundoyster.com
Jitlada, 5233 ½ W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 667-9809 or (323) 663-3104, jitladala.com
Kismet, 4648 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 409 0404, kismetla.com
Kismet Rotisserie, 4666 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 400-3700, kismetrotisserie.com
Night + Market Song / Night + Market Weho, 3322 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, (323) 665-5899; 9043 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 275-9724; nightmarketsong.com
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