From classic Italian recipes to freewheeling Italian-American red sauce, Los Angeles is in the middle of a pasta renaissance. And three ambitious new restaurants, all over the top in their own way, are expanding the noodle narrative in ritzy parts of LA.
At Funke in Beverly Hills, pasta powerhouse Evan Funke has a two-story pasta lab with chrome wrapping that kind of reminds him of the elevator at Frank Lopez’s mansion in Scarface. (Not incidentally, A-listers including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Barack and Michelle Obama, Jay Z, Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow have visited the chef’s other restaurants, and Jeffrey Katzenberg was at Funke the night Observer had dinner there.)
“The connection that I seek is that bridge between pasta maker and diner,” Funke told Observer. “If a diner is enjoying the trofie al pesto and sees 150 pieces of that shape in their bowl and then looks through the glass and sees the pasta maker wrapping out trofie, that’s a connection that can never be lost. And that diner will never look at that shape the same again. If it happens one time a night, that’s a win for me. The pasta lab is also a showpiece. It’s a conversation starter.”
This new Beverly Hills restaurant serves Roman pasta preparations (amatriciana, cacio e pepe, alla gricia) the chef is known for at Felix and Mother Wolf, but it also has other transporting pasta like tagliatelle with a Bolognese sauce that Evan Funke has worked on since 2007.
“What’s most important to me is to give credit where credit is due to the women who have taught me these extraordinary shapes and histories,” Funke said. “The two sections of the pasta on the menu indicate that we have pasta fatta a mano, the handmade pastas, and then we also have pasta trafilata al bronzo, which means extruded pastas. They’re all regionally based. They’re all cooked specifically to the doneness level that was found in that specific place. The menu lists the shape, the region where it comes from, the city where it comes from and the woman who taught me that shape.”
La Dolce Vita
Nearby in Beverly Hills, polished proprietors Marc Rose and Med Abrous (the former New Yorkers who also run New York-style Chinese restaurant Genghis Cohen) are overseeing the rollicking revival of La Dolce Vita. The restaurant, which originally debuted in 1966 with Frank Sinatra as an investor, now serves chef Nick Russo’s exuberant red sauce: pitch-perfect spaghetti and meatballs, properly spicy shrimp fra diavolo and a colossal veal parm that rivals New York City Italian-American food.
“Red sauce in a lot of ways is very simple, but it requires kind of familial tricks,” Abrous told Observer. “The ingredients are obviously very important, but it’s the care and time that it takes to create these layered flavor profiles and really understanding what the stories behind them are.”
The history at La Dolce Vita itself is no doubt compelling. The clubby and cozy booth-filled room hearkens back to another era, but Rose and Abrous have put in eye-catching updates like cheetah-print carpet. Servers wear golden-beige wool jackets and brandish wildly oversized pepper grinders when Caesar salads arrive at tables.
“I think this place was originally designed to look like an East Coast Italian restaurant,” Rose told Observer. “And while we wanted to maintain all of that nostalgia, all those feels that you got when you walked in, we also wanted to make it feel like a Beverly Hills red-sauce restaurant.”
Jemma di Mare
At Jemma di Mare, which serves East Coast-inspired Italian food in Brentwood, prolific restaurateurs Jackson and Melissa Kalb (Jame, Ospi and forthcoming Hollywood red-sauce joint Jemma) are focusing on seafood with dishes like fritto misto, linguine alle vongole, grilled dry-aged fish and a strikingly dramatic plate of whole-lobster fra diavolo with fettuccine. But Jackson Kalb, a talented chef who cooked in fine-dining restaurants as a teenager and established himself as a pasta prodigy with Jame in 2018, is also happily playing the meaty Italian-American hits. The Jemma di Mare crowd-pleasers include meatballs, Sunday gravy and veal parm.
“I think there’s so much nostalgia with Italian-American food,” Kalb told Observer. “There’s so many restaurants that have been around forever and have this special place in my heart, on both coasts. But the food is not often modernized. I don’t think it necessarily has to be. It was just something I wanted to do. We put a ton of technique into the food.”
Spaghetti pomodoro might seem like a simple dish, but the process at Jemma di Mare is elaborate.
“We do fresh tomato concasse every single day,” Kalb says. “And we cook that very slowly. There’s dashi in the linguine and clams. We’re making true proper dashi with kombu from the Wakayama prefecture. We’re using true niboshi. For the garlic, we slice it paper-thin; everything’s the same size, and we cook it with very low heat for a very long time. It’s to the point where if you were doing this with onion, you would almost call it sous vide.”
Talk to Kalb about capellini and he’ll tell you about 00 flour and the percentage of egg yolk and rolling the pasta a dozen times before it’s cut. The meatballs atop the capellini include Strauss veal and freshly made ricotta.
L.A.’s winning recipe
Big ambitions and attention to detail go hand-in-hand at LA’s hot new Italian restaurants. In a city where staffing and other issues have led many spots to only serve dinner, Jemma di Mare opened with lunch and dinner seven days a week and quickly added weekend brunch. (The Kalbs, who met when they were working at Houston’s, excel at hiring seasoned employees from respected high-volume restaurant groups like Hillstone and Ruth’s Chris.)
At Funke, everything from the imported cheese and flour, to the hand-selected California produce, to Dan Brunn’s architecture (which has both a residential and luxury-retail vibe), to the Basquiat and Warhol art on the walls, to the two stories of dining area plus a walk-in-only rooftop bar at a building owned by real estate magnate Kurt Rappaport adds up to a total-package destination.
“The entire restaurant is just an absolute dream,” Funke said. “I’m breathing very rarefied air, and none of that is lost on me.”
“I said to Evan that if we do this, we will have no budget,” Rappaport told Observer. “And we had no budget and we exceeded it.”
At La Dolce Vita, there’s a colorful piece of art that was painted by Sinatra and is titled “Fly Me to the Moon.” It’s on loan from Sinatra’s estate.
“We mentioned to Frank’s daughter Tina that we weren’t going to be the guys who just threw a bunch of black-and-white photos of the Rat Pack on the walls,” Rose says. “We let her know that, through our tons of hours of research, we knew her dad was a pretty prolific painter and made some really cool stuff. We told her we were fans of watercolors, something that we’d imagine he’d probably do with a whisky in hand out in Palm Springs over the weekend.”
History, imagination, storytelling. They’re all part of the recipe at LA’s new Italian hangouts.