Last year, months ahead of Felix Trattoria's opening this April, a documentarian working on a film project examining L.A.'s culinary scene asked to interview me about the forthcoming restaurant and its chef, Evan Funke. I agreed, but afterward I feared the conversation had been a disappointment to my interviewer, who posed lots of questions about how deeply important Felix might be when it opened. "I have no idea," I told him. "It depends on how good the food is."
The interviewer was a little taken aback by my lack of interest in Funke's grand ambition regarding Felix, and we veered into some philosophical territory about intent and romanticism and passion. "I don't really care about the chef's backstory," I remember saying. There are plenty of chefs with intense passion, with enough grand ideas and precious intent to fill three seasons of Mind of a Chef, and who are also capable of failure on the plate and in the dining room.
But failure seemed unlikely in this scenario. Funke has thrilled Los Angeles in the past, at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica and then at Bucato in Culver City. I missed Funke's run at Rustic Canyon but was entirely persuaded by his work at Bucato, where he undeniably raised the bar for pasta making in the city and introduced us to focaccia sfincione so light and fluffy and crisped at its edges that it immediately became an iconic dish.
Since Funke left Bucato in 2015, he's returned to Italy for more pasta-making inspiration, and along with owner Janet Zuccarini spent well over a year bringing Felix to life in the former Joe's location in Venice. The space is wonderful in the way only restaurants built in old houses can be, outfitted in warm brown leather booths and green botanical wallpaper that feels both modern and vintage-tinged.
The main feature of the front dining room (there are two, plus a bar area up front) is a glassed-in, climate-controlled room where the pasta magic happens. Funke had a similar setup at Bucato, but it was above the dining room and out of the view of customers. Here it's on display for all to see, a showcase of the handmade techniques the chef learned on his travels and proof that he's serious with his oft-used social media hashtag #fuckyourpastamachine.
That focaccia sfincione is back, a thing of stunningly simple beauty, finished in a wood-burning oven so its interior is soft and stretchy and cloudlike and its exterior is hot and crispy and layered with a thin slick of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt and a few sprigs of rosemary.
Also back: the side of broccoli that inspired this reverie from me when originally writing about it at Bucato: "[I]t tastes like the platonic ideal of broccoli, the sweetest, most vegetal, most intense broccoli ever. When asked how this is possible, Funke discusses 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."
But there's newness at Felix as well, and proof that this isn't a chef who'll rest on his laurels. You could easily make a beautiful meal from the antipasti section alone: delicately fried squash blossoms stuffed with fior di latte; a crudo of raw ridgeback prawns with a gloriously creamy texture; pork meatballs that have been quickly fried and burst with porky flavor. If the panzanella is available, you should absolutely order it, because it means Funke has come across enough beautiful summer produce to create the perfect bright and snappy salad, set off by the grounding pleasure of crispy bread.
But you're here for the pastas, which are presented on the menu in sections relating to their respective regions of Italian origin: north, central, south (Mezzogiorno on the menu, as it's known in Italy) and the islands.
Every table seems to have a plate of the pappardelle, which means Funke is often in the pasta room early in the evening rolling out rounds of dough and cutting the thick noodles, knowing he'll run out by mid-evening if he doesn't get ahead. Bathed in a mellow Bolognese, the pasta is practically silky, making the pappardelle of your past seem rough and clumsy by comparison.
It would take weeks to eat through all these pastas, from saffron-tinged malloreddus (tiny Sardinian gnocchi) and multiple variations of spaghetti to hearty ragus and lovely little orecchiette with sausage and more of that incredible broccoli. It hasn't appeared on the menu yet, but some nights carbonara is available, and it has the potential to usurp the pappardelle as king of this restaurant. The sauce is like the very soul of egg yolk, with all of its fat and glossy slick (and none of its slime), punctuated by crispy frizzles of pancetta. Funke serves it with a wide variation on rigatoni, and the egg sauce clings to the ridges of the al dente pasta like a wondrous yellow gravy.
Is it at all possible Funke has enough passion in his heart to care as deeply about pizza as he does pasta? I doubt it. And it shows; the perfectionism with which he approaches everything else on the menu doesn't shine through in the Neapolitan-style pizza, which can be floppy bordering on soupy in the middle. It's not bad pizza — the crust is charred, the dough has good flavor. It's just not the best goddamned pizza you've ever eaten, and when put beside the focaccia and the pasta and the broccoli and the panzanella, it seems weak by comparison.
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Because many dishes at Felix will be the best goddamned version of that thing you've ever had.
I don't care much about Funke's holy devotion to pasta, his backstory or his romantic sweeps through the Italian countryside. Is it nice to sit and watch as he lovingly rolls out the pappardelle in his glassed-in room? Sure, but it's not the first time that trick has been played in the United States (see: Monteverde in Chicago), and the ogling of the creation of food is one of those tropes I could take or leave.
What matters is the taste of what's on the plate, the feel of eating in the room, the graciousness of the people bringing the food. Felix delivers on those fronts in spades: The service is lovely, the cocktails are fantastic, the wine list is deep and smart. The food is goddamned delicious. To more satisfyingly answer that months-old question about the significance of Felix Trattoria: If this kind of pleasure is what all that romantic ambition gets you, then I'm happy to concede its deep importance.
FELIX TRATTORIA | Four stars | 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice | (424) 387-8622 | felixla.com | Sun.-Thu., 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-mid. | pastas, $21-$25; entrees, $20-$40, more for market-price steaks | Full bar | Valet and street parking