There is a distinct difference between dried boxed pasta and handmade strands and shapes. No Italian cook is going to tell you that fresh pasta is always superior—sometimes a dried penne or linguini works with a particular sauce or presentation. But in the hands of chef Evan Funke, it’s hard to deny the beauty in a freshly cut pappardelle or delicately rolled orecchiette. Actually, watching it be made makes it taste even better. You’re practically transported to some little Italian village outside of Rome, Apulia or Bologna.
It seems fitting that Felix Trattoria is located in the heart of Venice along the bustling and still-evolving Abbot Kinney. It might not be Italy, but it’s easy to see that the heart and soul of this place beats Italian. The former Joe’s—Joe Miller’s famed restaurant that was central to the growth of contemporary California cuisine—is now a warm and inviting collection of rooms, but still chic and modern in its design. I love that Funke once mentioned that he wanted Felix to feel like a grandmother’s house, only if his grandmother was Sophia Loren. The bombshell actress is, in fact, a patron saint to the restaurant, and there’s a huge mural of the beauty on a wall outside.
The room is rather sexy, thanks to Wendy Haworth Design Studio, who has a penchant for making restaurants feel like home with a use of textures, colors and a fantastic eye for art. There’s a small bar right when you walk in, which can be a good spot for dinner for anyone without a reservation (they’re already hard to come by). Truth be told, you’ll probably find me at one of the little marble-topped tables in the corner with a Negroni and plate of cacio e pepe.
The dining room is awash in warm tones, filled with midcentury-modern furniture and big windows that let in that wonderful beachy, early evening glow. In the center of it all is the pasta “lab,” where Funke and his team roll out a variety of doughy shapes throughout the day and night. The tables alongside it are coveted for prime viewing, but those can even get crowded when everyone else wants to take pictures for Instagram.
Toward the back, another dining room has cozy booths and a quieter vibe. The staff lovingly named it the “nonna” room for it’s richly hued green-and-pink floral-patterned walls and wood-beamed ceiling. It’s the perfect spot for clandestine dinners, or for the many famous faces that seem to be rolling through the restaurant—unless you’re Gwyneth Paltrow; she sits front and center in a striped banquette, facing out, enjoying plates of pasta and salads with her friends.
Funke may have found his true culinary path in Italy, but he worked at Spago for several years before that. After an apprenticeship with master pasta-maker Alessandra Spisni of La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, he helmed the kitchen at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica and then opened Bucato. Collaborating with Toronto-based Gusto 54 brings all the right elements together for Felix: Barman Brandyn Tepper’s (Hinoki & the Bird) cocktails blend the best of Italian and Californian sensibilities; General Manager Matteo Floris hails from Rimini, Italy; and Beverage Director Matthew Rogel handselects smart, mostly Italian varietals for wines. From the crew to the style, the place just works.
And go hungry. The menu isn’t huge, but it’s filled with so many delights. Start light with a citrus, fennel and pistachio salad; or twirls of sweet charred leeks with a touch of garlic, chilies and bottarga. Either is perfect with the ethereal focaccia that’s both light and fluffy inside and crisp outside—the top touched with sea salt and rosemary. Even the meatballs are special. Funke learned to make this version in Italy, gorgeous and juicy inside, but fried with a golden armor of bread crumbs outside. Lacy fried squash blossoms stuffed with fior di latte and green garlic are also stunners.
Pasta is the star of the menu, but pizza is not an afterthought. Felix is the only restaurant in town making the dough by hand every day; no machines, no special fermentation. It’s a lot of work, but that tenacity results in thin crusts with outer rims bubbly and charred from the wood-burning oven. It’s a great base for things like broccoli, Calabrese, spicy ’nduja and buffalo mozzarella.
Pastas are listed by regions of Italy and change almost daily. How to choose? Go back often because they’re all amazing. From the North, there are wide pappardelle ribbons tossed with the most soulful Bolognese (also learned from Funke’s Italian master); or trofie, a short, thin twisted pasta from Liguria, with bright pesto and pecorino. From the South—orecchiette stretched on the cook’s thumb to create the perfect little “ears” is tossed with sausage. Tonnarelli cacio e pepe hails from central Italy, and the islands are represented with things like calamarata—thick rings soaking up a pitch-perfect puttanesca.
What’s really lovely is that this isn’t just authentic Italian food. Funke is a SoCal native, so cooking in tune with the seasons, which itself is very Italian, is at the heart of what he does. It’s still very local though, seen from the antipasti to the pastas and preparations to the secondi like swordfish and salsa verde or wood-fired lamb chops that melt in your mouth. Simple endings like a creamy budino with sweet, crunchy walnuts or an olive-oil cake full of fragrant citrus are perfect.
Thanks to the design, passion and talent behind every dish, and well-trained staffers—seriously, their knowledge and pronunciation of Italian pastas, wines and ingredients is truly impressive—Felix already feels like it’s been here forever.
1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, 424.387.8622
Pane and antipasti, $5-$19; pizza, $18-$21; pasta, $20-$24; secondi, $24-$38; dessert, $9-$10
Sun.-Thu., 5:30-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30pm-midnight
Where to Sit
For prime pasta-watching, ask for a seat right in front of the “laboratorio.” For more privacy, opt for the “nonna” room.
What to Drink
The Too Soon?—made with gin, amaro, lemon and cucumber—is way too easy drink.
At Bucato, phone use and cameras were banned. It’s exactly the opposite at Felix. The lab is already an Instagram star.