Is there a bread in the world more abused than focaccia? Spongy, leaden, heavily oily versions plague everything from fast-food menus to high-end restaurant bread baskets. Yes, the world is full of pitiful, floppy baguettes, and shameful sourdoughs crowd our supermarket shelves. But focaccia is one of those sad instances where the bad version has actually won — there's so much of it out there that only conscious seekers of great bread and those very lucky Italians have tasted anything but.
This, in part, is why the focaccia at Evan Funke's new restaurant, Bucato, is so gobsmacking. Baked ahead of time and then finished in a wood-burning oven, the bread comes to the table with a thin, moist topping of tomatoes and olives cooked into its surface. But it's the texture that's so astounding: the delicately crisp exterior paired with an ethereal, pillowy fluff of an interior.
The focaccia — which is based on the Sicilian recipe for sfincione, meaning "sponge" — loses much of its magic as it cools, becoming less like an otherworldly, savory doughnut. The trick is to make sure its of-the-moment pleasure doesn't go to waste, while somehow leaving enough room for everything else you're going to want to eat here. Which is a lot.
Bucato has been a long time coming. Funke, who had become quite beloved as the chef at Rustic Canyon, left that restaurant in early 2012 to open this new Italian project, the third in the wave of food destinations at the Helms Bakery complex, joining Father's Office and Lukshon. Originally slated to open late last year, the project was held up by construction. In the meantime, Funke launched his Porchetta truck as a way to keep cooking, to keep from going crazy.
But really, this restaurant's roots go back to 2007, when Funke studied for three months in Bologna under master pasta maker Alessandra Spisni. Bucato is the direct descendant of Funke's Italian education, and in many ways a straightforward ode to Bologna's food traditions.
This is most apparent in the pastas. As his pasta maker, Funke has brought in Kosaku Kawamura, a Japanese chef he met in Italy. In a glassed-in room above the regular kitchen, Kawamura turns out some of the most glorious pastas this city has ever seen, each bowl a small miracle. Tiny, tight gnocchetti comes bathed in pesto Genovese. Much like the focaccia, this pesto is revelatory in its vast difference from run-of-the-mill pesto, its flavors bright yet mellow, its grassy, tangy perfume almost sharply floral.
Corzetti, comfortingly floppy rounds of pasta, come with a simple, almost rugged walnut pesto. Orecchiette become dynamic — sweet and smoky with their adornments of sausage, sprouting broccoli and chilis. Braised meats play a major roll in many dishes, and several mellow, soothing ragus appear each night — perhaps lamb over fat yellow pappardelle, perhaps tight rolls of strascinati with supple, juicy duck.
Aside from pasta and bread, Bucato's menu features sputini, which translates approximately to "snacks," as well as vegetables, seafood and meat. Each of these sections holds its own pleasures: a delicate, lemony Dungeness crab crostino topped with lardo; a refined chicken cacciatore with its wild mushroom, herb and tomato components pulled apart and served artfully on the plate under a very good, woodfire-roasted bird; a live scallop crudo with a pert green-olive topping.
In the vegetable section, Funke is presenting some of his best work. He thinks harder about how to get the most out of simple broccoli than many chefs do about far more complex dishes. His sprouting-broccoli dish is incredibly straightforward — sautéed with olive oil and a touch of garlic, and served with thin slices of picked chilis.
Yet it tastes like the platonic ideal of broccoli, the sweetest, most vegetal, most intense broccoli ever. When asked how this is possible, Funke explains in detail the four farms he's sourcing his broccoli from, how one farm is close to the coast; with hot days and cold nights; how another produces broccoli watered with snow runoff; how all of these things contribute to the flavors of each kind; and how, when mixed together, they create "super broccoli." He's right: It really is super.
Yet another tomato-and-mozzarella dish becomes new again, served as a panzanella with roasted fennel, artichokes, grilled bread and arugula, a dish that is a salad but also an entire antipasto plate. Treviso, a longer, thinner kind of radicchio, has its bitter edges tamed with honey dates and pine nuts, and bagna cauda, the hot garlic-and-anchovy sauce generally served as a dip, is used to dress the greens.
Desserts are by Zairah Molina, who previously worked under Sherry Yard at Spago. They take their inspiration from Italy but are also intensely seasonal — right now you'll find ingredients like grilled nectarines and basil ice cream alongside the nut-and–olive oil cakes. It's also Molina who's baking the astonishing breads, with Funke's input and leadership.
For all these successes, Bucato has not been without its controversies — far from it. A note on the bottom of the menu states "Cellphones and photography expressly prohibited," and this alone caused what might be described as a revolt in the blogosphere. The policy is supposed to allow dining without distraction, but it may be a losing battle — on the patio, at least, I saw phones on almost every table.
There's also the question of reservations, which are only same-day for the time being. Funke says this policy is probably temporary and was put in place to avoid the usual crush and resulting disarray that goes along with restaurant openings. But it also makes planning a dinner here frustrating, though reservations have been fairly easy to come by, even later in the day.
Many people, too, have complained about portion sizes. My gut reaction is to dismiss this as the American fallacy of more-is-better. We are simply not used to small, gorgeous portions of pasta; we'd prefer a giant bowl of the stuff. Yet there are places where the complainers have a point, where dishes are too small to share (as we're instructed to do by the waitstaff), where a $9 dessert is barely three spoonfuls. I appreciate the restraint — tiny desserts can be a relief after a rich, filling meal — but cost is a factor, too.
Then there are the bathrooms. Yes, the bathrooms, which aren't in the restaurant but somewhere behind it, down a concrete breezeway. You will be given a code to memorize and punch into a keypad to gain access (if someone on staff notices you're looking — this system has no DIY option), presumably because otherwise the stalls might become a refuge for the area's homeless population.
But none of these things bother me as much as the inside space, which feels less like a welcoming restaurant and more like a brightly lit, high-design hallway between galleries at some big-city museum. Designed by Undisclosable Inc., the angular structure above the open kitchen and the high ceilings work well to deflect noise, but the layout is awkward, never allowing the interior to feel bustling or vibrant.
The front patio, on the other hand, is simple yet lovely: comfortable seats, attractive flame space heaters, a glassed-in view of Helms. Sitting here, eating pasta and these insanely well-conceived vegetable dishes, Bucato seems like a dream.
Funke and his crew are taking so many things we think we know and showing us a better version, the best version. Controversies, difficulties and weird room be damned: This is a very good dream.
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BUCATO | Three stars | 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City | (310) 876-0286 | bucato.la | Sun. & Tues.-Thurs., 5-10:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5-11:30 p.m. Brunch, Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. | Plates (range from snack to entree size), $4-$22 | Beer and wine | Street and lot parking