The guy a booth over from me on the patio at Bucato is kvetching about charging his Leaf; apparently the outlet at his house is on the wrong side of the car. His conversation is pretty much the highest-tech thing in the restaurant. Cell phone photography is banned, and when the kitchen crew isn’t crafting the pestos with a stone mortar and pestle, it’s chopping ingredients by hand. Dominating the room is the cantilevered pasta lab above the bar, its dramatic facade a series of angles encasing a long, double-paned window. This is where every cross-hatched gnocchetti, every cute, pudgy pici, and every ribbon of pappardelle starts as a mound of Caputo 00 flour and some whisked eggs. No mechanical pasta presses are operated here. Born and raised in L.A., Evan Funke (it’s a hard e) worked his way up the ranks to sous-chef at Spago. He would go on to man the stoves at Rustic Canyon for several years, but before that he spent six months in Italy, learning at the side of Alessandra Spisni, Bologna’s renowned pasta master. That’s where he met Kosaku Kawamura, who serves as Funke’s fellow noodle czar at the restaurant. It’s also where Funke developed the conviction that even hand-cranked machines squeeze out air pockets in the noodles, obliterating the lightness that can make a length of angel hair seem as though it is truly that. Instead they roll out the dough with a wooden rod before cutting it with the appropriate sharp-edged implement, whether it’s the carved Ligurian wood stampa that punches corzetti stampati or the multistringed chitarra used for making a wiry style of spaghetti.
Don’t get me wrong. Bucato offers a broad selection of dishes. The one-page menu swells with salads of rich treviso and dates perked up with bagna càuda—a warm, anchovy-laced dressing—and oceanic treats like grilled mackerel fillet draped over stewed peperonata. Not everything is hyperauthentic, either. Funke is happy to goose his kampachi crudo with chopped olive pestata and a drizzle of pungent olive oil. But you won’t find pizzas, because perfecting those would distract Funke from the driving force behind Bucato: pasta making and the single-mindedness required to create the really good kind—the kind that’s lacy yet tensile, homey yet sophisticated.
Compromise isn’t part of Funke’s approach, at least not with anything that comes from the lab. True to tradition, he allows the dough to rest a bit and wick out moisture. The net effect is that certain pastas will seem slightly drier than what a lot of Americans are accustomed to. You notice it in the powerful rendition of cacio e pepe, where the looping strands of spaghetti have a subtle brittleness to them that helps ignite the compound of coarsely ground black pepper and grated Pecorino Romano cheese. It’s the ear-shaped orecchiette as much as the sprouting broccoli that put a little bite into the brothy sausage sugo. When Funke does serve soft pasta, it’s to play off the texture of an especially robust sauce. The gossamer pappardelle absorb each droplet of lamb ragù, while the nibletlike pici meld seamlessly with the morsels of sheep’s milk ricotta within. Eating a bowl of those corzetti—delicate nickel-size disks whose pliant edges offer a pitch-perfect resistance to the walnut pesto—can make you feel as if all you had to do was go to Culver City to reach the bubbling headwaters of Italian cooking.
Bucato, which Funke and business partner Ed Keebler opened in late July, occupies the zigzag moderne building that once housed the Beacon Laundry in a corner of the Helms Bakery complex. (In fact, “bucato” pretty much means “laundry” in Italian.) Patios face fore and aft, looking onto the people who crowd the terrace at Father’s Office while other diners watch an outdoor movie projected on one of the high walls that bear the insignia of the 1932 Olympics (Helms was the official bread). Although the room has an awkward, farfalle-like shape that is broader at both ends than at the center, it has an inviting simplicity. The pale birch that sheathes the pasta lab accentuates the dark grain of the long bar and wooden seating. The waitstaff wears cheerful pink shirts and bow ties; the kitchen crew (a more tatted group you’re not likely to see), blue denim garrison caps. Tables remain bare until the customer sits down and a rolled napkin (no mummy-cloth dishrag here) is proffered as a ceremonial starting gesture.
Each generation chooses its own kind of theater. In the 1950s, when Pasquale “Patsy” D’Amore would give a big paisano welcome at the door of the Villa Capri, the Rat Pack favorite off Highland, he was carrying on the tradition of the worldly host overseeing a veal-intensive menu. Except for perhaps at Rao’s, the red sauce holdout in Harlem (which recently opened a satellite in Hollywood), that type of old-school approach doesn’t fly anymore. Today we pride ourselves on our knowledge of the salumi art and prefer what’s actually Umbrian to the merely urbane. L.A. chefs such as Funke (or for that matter, Steve Samson and Zach Pollack at Sotto, Ori Menashe at Bestia, and Chad Colby at Chi Spacca) owe a debt to the likes of Mauro Vincenti, Piero Selvaggio, Celestino Drago, Gino Angelini, and Evan Kleiman, each of whom helped move the city—with every al dente serving and shaved petal of Sicilian bottarga—to a more legit interpretation of the Italian table.
It’s through them that many Angelenos got to taste the subtle differences between northern and southern pasta (the latter utilizes fewer eggs). But Funke moves beyond the usual regional preoccupations. For him an area as small as the city of Bologna can be a font of culinary diversity. “The recipes change door to door,” he told me one day over the phone—a detail that could only enhance his ossessione. However, Funke isn’t interested in simply transporting you to another place with his food. As befits a native son, his cooking is very much planted in California. Above the entrance antique knives that have been whacked into the wall form an outline of the state (a cleaver marks L.A.). And throughout the menu you sense the produce-rich abundance only this state can offer. Tangy Polito Family Farms orange segments mixed in with olives, fennel, and mint provide a fresh counterpoint to the charred lamb chop scottadito. Late-season Harry’s Berries tomatoes might be baked into a marjoram-freckled round focaccia loaf or go into the panzanella (bread) salad, in which the garlic-tinged juices pool with stracciatella, a loosely clotted rendition of mozzarella. Fried zucchini flowers—each one bursting with mint-flecked ricotta—get extra crunch from the baby zucchini stems to which they’re attached. Local plums prepared in a vinegar-jacked agrodolce tease the musky half notes from lobes of sizzling seared sweetbreads.
I’m not suggesting this is Cal-Italian but rather a culinary paradox: how the exploration of one place can lead to the deepest reaches of another. Of course there is the occasional hitch. Funke tries to modernize chicken cacciatore, presenting it as a crisp leg and breast roasted separately from a garnish of undercooked kale and olives, but it lacks the rustic stew quality of the original. And the spirit of abundance takes Funke overboard with the porchetta, in which he lays slices of roast pork atop a crostino heaped with pork fat pesto modenese. Exquisite by itself—particularly when flowing over pan-seared tigelle flatbreads— this spread of lardo, garlic, and rosemary offers zero contrast to the already rich meat.
As complaints go, that isn’t much. In fact, time and time again I’ve found myself not only delighted but educated at Bucato. My preconceptions about Bolognese sauce as a red-checked warhorse withered when I tasted Funke’s version: He doesn’t use tomato paste, so what I expected would be hearty (though often dull) revealed itself as a gorgeously nuanced showcase of the acidity and flavor of good tomatoes. I never gave much thought to pasta shapes until the hollow center of Funke’s macaroni di busa (they’re fashioned by being wrapped around long needles) showed me how vacant space, a noningredient, helps modulate the lushness of a long-cooked pork ragù bianco.
Such natural efficiency serves as a reminder of sorts. At its best, Italian food is an art of few primary ingredients—prosciutto and melon, pasta and fagioli—a principle that often applies to the desserts as well. Pastry chef Zairah Molina shows a playful deftness from years of working under Sherry Yard at Spago. A square of sponge cake, made with ground pistachios and topped with a disk of red peppercorn brittle, hints at a great Sicilian cassata, an Easter cake known for its hunks of candied fruit. She serves her updated torta della nonna in a skillet instead of as a slice, but it is still freighted with the eternal notes of olive oil and pine nuts. Molina steers clear of the staleness of convention without being disrespectful of the sweet classics. The Nutella that squishes out from the fried, sugar-coated zeppole doughnuts can be traced only as far as the grocery shelf, and yet you grasp something heartfelt and affecting each time you reach for one more from the double paper bag.
3280 Helms Avenue, Culver City
Best dishes:Focaccia with roasted tomatoes, kampachi crudo, pesto modenese, fried squash blossoms, corzetti with walnut pesto, spaghetti cacio e pepe, crispy polenta with mushrooms, zeppole
Drinks: A curated, mostly Italian wine list; a selection of draft beers with well-maintained lines
Noise level: Moderate
Kid friendly? Yes, but no pizza
Price range: $4 (breads) to $23 (half chicken)
Hours: Dinner: Sun, Tue.-Thu.: 5-10:30; Fri.-Sat.: 5-11:30. Brunch: Sat.-Sun.: 10-3
Parking: Free lot
Credit cards: All major