Hand-Rolled Pasta Is Made To Be Admired at Felix Trattoria
Pasta. It’s the undeniable star of the show at Felix Trattoria, Evan Funke’s new Italian restaurant on Abbot Kinney, named after the Latin word for “happy” or “lucky.” As such, while there are many lovely places to sit -- at the cozy, bustling front bar, around the communal banquet in the main dining room, or in the charming, richly wallpapered back room -- the two-tops siding the pasta-making terrarium steal the show.
The space, which was home to Joe’s for 24 years, tempers the formality of its predecessor -- it is still very much a destination for special occasions -- with a breezy sophistication that skates the line of trendy. The layout is familiar except for one major addition to the dining room. Just behind the glass (and those lucky-to-score two-tops) in a small temperature controlled nook, supple dough gets kneaded, shaped and rolled into pasta by hand. It’s a repetitive, labor-intensive process, that offers a window into a menu that has little pity on LA’s gluten-free community.
Felix is a collaboration between Funke and owner/partner Janet Zuccarini, CEO and owner of Gusto 54, a restaurant group out of Canada. Designer Wendy Haworth is responsible for the warm yet modern environs. And, in case you’re wondering or Instagramming it, that mural of Sophia Loren on the outside wall is by artist Cheyenne Randall.
As for the food, to start, you’ll want the sfincione. The uneven top of the circular puff arrives glistening and golden-brown, topped with flecks of sea salt and rosemary, looking nothing like what generally passes as foccacia. One bite of the pillowy pod and you’ll have visions of olive groves dotting idyllic Italian slopes -- so present is the olive oil throughout the bread.
About that olive oil, which will work its way into a number of dishes throughout your meal: It’s from Asaro in Sicily, although a server said it’s possible to have a bottle added to your bill if you ask nicely.
The menu, with ingredients coming from California family farms, adjusts with the seasons, and your next stop should be a salad as it’s where SoCal produce has its moment. The cicoria, a mix of chicory, honey dates, capers, pine nuts, bagna cauda and generous sprinkling of pecorino or the agrumi, a salad of citrus, fennel, olive, mint and pistachio, are exactly the kind of cleansing you’ll need before diving head-first into the rest of the menu, a whirlwind of pizza, pasta, meats, and dessert.
Pizzas are served whole with a knife you can use to slice it yourself (sigh). The Calabrese impressed with its tiny orbs of pleasingly spicy n’duja, crisp broccoli calabrese and rich mozzarella di bufala. The crust was more doughy here than on the margherita, which arrived lightly charred and paper-thin, spread with a tangy pomodoro sauce that played well with the fior di latte, basil and that heavenly olive oil.
As for the main event, the pastas rotate and are influenced by chef Funke’s time in Bologna, where he studied the art of pasta-making. He’s divided the pasta portion of the menu by region and -- as with the rest of the menu -- chosen to use spare descriptors in Italian. For the non Italian-speaking among us, this likely necessitates a conversation with a server about what’s-what, and even then you might be caught off-guard as to the pasta that arrives. A duck ragu, which I imagined to be rich and saucy, was instead on the dry side and so rustic that I felt the need to till a field (after a long nap) post-consumption.
A favorite was the orecchiette from southern Italy; its sausage sugo, broccoli di cicco, peperoncino and pecorino impressed, the meaty richness wrapping around the pasta for a lick-the-plate moment. Equally pleasing on the lighter side, from the north, was the trofie, a short curly-cue pasta that’s presented with a basil pesto and topped with shavings of mild Pecorino di Malga.
All the pastas are cooked al dente, the better to show off the work of those aproned folks in the glass terrarium, and that hearty feeling is enhanced by the plates the pasta is served on, heavy, earth-toned numbers by Mirena Kim Ceramics.
Perhaps my most memorable moment at Felix was not in contemplating the toothsome nature of the pasta while sipping a beautifully made cocktail (Brandyn Tepper directs the program) or well-paired glass of wine from a list heavy on Italian varietals (overseen by beverage director Matthew Rogel), but in an across-the-table-and-the-generations moment that Venice is often assumed to have lost to gentrification.
As I was dining with a friend one night at the rather unfashionable hour of 5:30 p.m. (the only reservable slot available before 9 p.m., naturally), we caught the attention of a nearby table for two.
Its occupants, two proudly greying women, struck up a conversation. First we chatted about our orders and whether this was our first visit, and soon we were passing plates across the empty table between us. We offered bread to better soak up the olive oil remaining after they devoured their prawn crudo, and they offered us a slice of their pizza, which we reciprocated.
As it turns out, one had gone to the elementary school “ages ago” just across the street and both had been Joe’s customers for years. They loved eating out and trying new neighborhood restaurants. We shared tasting notes, favorite Venice restaurants, and generally enjoyed each other’s company; I wanted to hug them as they left, but instead I just smiled and said goodbye as we dipped into the last of our cherry panna cotta.
Felix Trattoria // 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice 90291