The man who invented Korean tacos and the avant-garde adventurers promoting modernist manipulations might get all the headlines, but these days in L.A., there's a quieter faction breaking new ground: an army of chefs dedicated to the purist pursuit of Italian noodles. From Sotto to Superba, Bestia to Bucato, Scopa to Sqirl, the quality and breadth of L.A.'s pasta in the last couple of years has taken a quantum leap forward.
One of the newest soldiers in this delicious march toward pasta saturation is Factory Kitchen, a Northern Italian trattoria from chef Angelo Auriana and Matteo Ferdinandi, an alumnus of many fine dining rooms, most recently Drago Central, where he served as maitre d'. Auriana has spent the last few years working in San Francisco, but before that he ran Piero Selvaggio's kitchen at Valentino for 18 years.
The two have teamed up for this restaurant in the Factory Place Arts Complex, an Arts District collection of mixed-use buildings. Factory Kitchen makes its home in what was obviously once a loading dock in the bottom of a warehouse, now converted to lofts.
Part of the fun of the place is watching an older, monied set cozy up to weathered and worn concrete columns that took the brunt of the building's hard industrial life. (It actually used to be a fish-smoking facility.) Those chipped and crumbling walls, which saw a lifetime of rough use, now fit in conveniently as part of the modern open-kitchen, factory-chic aesthetic we've come to know and (kind of) love.
But everything else about the place — the bar with its big-screen TV, the wooden tables, the orchids as accent — take a step away from the über-trendy restaurant designs that contrast forced rusticism with complicated lighting. Despite its out-of-the-way location, at its heart Factory Kitchen feels like a straightforward neighborhood restaurant.
A large part of the open kitchen is dedicated to the making of pasta. Auriana focuses on deceptively simple sauces and preparations that allow the noodles to shine. Their quality is most apparent in a dish of mandilli di seta, thin sheets of pasta that arrive piled in diminutive heaps, like the cast-off silky underthings you might find on a woman's bedroom floor. (The English translation for "mandilli" is "silk handkerchief," which seems just about perfect.) A mellow green Ligurian pesto made from basil and almonds coats the noodles, and the whole thing thrums with soft delicacy.
There are long, wide, parsley-studded noodles, with meaty wild boar cooked with wine to a gratifying richness. And at lunch, a loopy fusilli with an uncomplicated amatriciana sauce gets to the very heart of what's good about the marriage of al dente noodles, bright tomato and sharp cheese.
But pasta is hardly the only accomplishment of this kitchen. Many of the pleasures on offer here come in the form of appetizers — a straightforward, creamy sunchoke soup garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds, or a fried duck egg over a semolina crostone that has been soaked in broth and draped in sauteed bitter greens. It's a play on pancotto, a traditional soup made with bread, but in this version it has become soup-bread rather than bread soup.
Auriana is serving a few varieties of focaccina calda di Recco al formaggio, a kind of ethereally thin, crusty, bread-draped-in-cheese dish that's specific to the town of Recco in Genoa. You'll be tempted to pick it up, like the pizza it almost resembles, but you may need a knife and fork to handle its glorious sloppiness. If you think you've explored every aspect of the delicious possibilities of cheese and bread, think again. This dish makes that particular relationship new again, like falling in love for the 17th time.
Also slightly revelatory: the barberosse gratinate, a hot beet casserole made with a layering of sliced beets and glorious, stinky asiago cheese. It's an exercise in earthy funk, but it's also lustrously gooey: vegetal decadence at its best.
Oddly, Factory Kitchen's weakness seems to be in the entree department. Compared to the pastas, focaccia and antipasti, the offerings under the "from the sea and land" heading tend to be sort of blunt when considered alongside the finely honed craft of the other dishes. A veal chop over greens, both cooked simply, was kind of chewy and graceless — not terrible, but wholly ordinary. Oven-roasted rabbit with potatoes also was unremarkable, a little too salty, not quite tender enough and not quite flavorful enough (though a plate of glazed cippolinis, which you can order as a side dish, helped immeasurably).
At lunch, a plate of outrageously rich, fatty cotechino, a Modenese fresh pork sausage, came on a plate of mushy lentils and carrot puree reminiscent of baby food. This is rustic cooking, to be sure, but none of it seems as careful or well-conceived as the rest of the menu.
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Including, yes, the desserts. Everyone is swooning over Factory Kitchen's cannoli, and the small, marmalade-dabbed confections are probably the best of the many cannoli I've eaten at new Italian restaurants recently. But Auriana and Co. are also turning out a stunningly good panna cotta, the kind that stays firm enough on your spoon but liquefies in a milky gush once you get it to your mouth, without the lingering gelatin wobble that plagues so many inferior versions of this dessert. Exceedingly fun, chocolate custard–filled cream puffs come smeared with caramel sauce and tasting like giddy childhood joy.
Ferdinandi's service chops are apparent, particularly when it comes to the support staff. The backwaiter is an endangered species, and the skills required a dying art, but Factory Kitchen's team of backwaiters is excellent — so good, in fact, you'll never notice them quietly and briskly delivering and removing plates in unison, or clearing every last crumb from your table. The grand dance of service is a particularly smooth waltz here, and if you do decide to pay attention, its rhythm verges on beauty. The actual waiters, the ones you talk to and order from, can be a little less adept, a little more harried. But Ferdinandi understands that if you get the small things right, the bigger things generally fall into place.
More often than not, those small details add up to a delightful experience. There's a thoughtful, affordable wine list with a host of interesting, food-friendly Italian finds. There's a warmth to the room, a lack of pretension or trendiness that's quite refreshing. And, for the most part, Auriana is cooking food that's both exciting and soul-satisfying. It's a combination that's as uncommon as it is welcome.
FACTORY KITCHEN | Three stars | 1300 Factory Place, dwntwn. | (213) 996-6000 | thefactorykitchen.com | Sun.-Mon., 5:30-10 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. | Pastas $18-$22; entrees, $24-$34 | Full bar | Valet parking