With a long wooden stick in his hands and a slab of pasta dough in front of him, Evan Funke rolled with intent. Under the watchful eye of his teacher in Bologna, Alessandra Spisni, he applied just the right amount of pressure to the disc of flour and egg, spreading it wider, turning the dough to ensure evenness, and dusting it with flour as it grew. He’d already been training for months at La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese to learn how to create sheets of handmade pasta, or sfoglia, but this one was different.
“I must have rolled a thousand before I rolled that sfoglia, but I know the day I finally rolled the perfect one: February 14, 2008,” Funke says. “It was perfectly uniform, perfectly round, and I have pictures of it. It was like everything was in unison and in harmony. I’ve been chasing that same one ever since, but it’s taken me 10 years to understand, I guess, what pasta-making means to me personally and for my career and everything else.”
He’s been chasing the perfect one ever since, eventually returning to his hometown of Los Angeles, where he now wows the city with handmade pasta. He has devoted his life to this old culinary art form to the point where, inside his restaurant Felix in Venice, there’s a glass-enclosed room in the middle of the dining room where customers can watch the pasta makers work. We wanted to get to the root of his obsession with sfoglia, so we discussed his relationship to Italian cuisine, how he learned his craft, and what he hopes the future holds for his favorite food.
RR: What originally drew you to Italian food? I mean, Funke doesn’t sound Italian.
EF: I’m Californian first, no matter what my bloodline. My family has been here since before it was California. We used to ranch cattle on land that was granted to us by General Vallejo of Mexico. I’ve got a great-grandfather that rode shotgun for Wells Fargo Stagecoach. This is a California family. I’m very proud of that. And in California, I don’t think there’s a family that doesn’t relate to pasta. It was always spaghetti and meatballs growing up. It hits a mark with a lot of people.
It’s also very easy to cook Italian food in California because of its similarities in region and climate and produce. I cook as if California is its own region in Italy by using what’s around me. I’ve taken the time to understand the microclimates throughout the “peninsula” of California, and built lasting relationships with family farms. Without the farmers, I wouldn’t be able to cook the way I cook. We have a reverence for the land that’s very much the same in Italy, where products shine through in the cooking.
RR: Why did you become so focused on pasta?
EF: I worked at Spago for 6 years, and my station was directly behind the pasta maker at Spago, where he made agnolotti. The agnolotti was actually the one shape that drew me to Italy. I watched him make thousands and thousands every single day, and I always wanted to get to do it.
Once I left Spago, I did a couple of odd culinary jobs but landed in a job that I really did not like. It was at a hotel, and I was absolutely miserable. The chef’s family was from Bologna. Here and there, he would make Bolognese food, but he wouldn’t teach me anything. It really pissed me off. I was completely unhappy with my life as a chef, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was like, “I’m done with this.” I had an epiphany, and I said, “You know what? I’m going to go learn pasta. That’s what I want to do.” So, I moved to Bologna in 2007.
RR: Who taught you when you arrived?
EF: I ended up at a school called La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, run by a woman named Alessandra Spisni and her brother Alessandro. I called them, and it so happened that their daughter Stefania spoke a little bit of English at the time, and I said, “Please, I would really like to come and make pasta.” She said, “Okay, sure. A thousand euros, we’ll see you when you get here.” I bought a ticket to Italy, I rented an apartment, and I moved there.
I didn’t speak the language; I didn’t know what I was walking into. All I had was an extremely deep-set desire to learn something new—something that, ultimately, I would base the next 10 years of my life on. I spent six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, rolling sfoglia. That’s making pasta with a stick.
Now she’s a celebrity with her own TV show and magazine, but when I was at Spisni’s small school, it was me and her. I had all this French and Asian technique drilled into me at Spago. It all went out the window. My experience there set forth the path that I am still on now. Alessandra really opened the door for me to start seeking out other pasta makers in Italy that are still practicing handmade pasta, and it has become my driving force. I’ve spent the last decade going back to Italy as often as possible, spending all of my money on travel, so that I can literally go to the country, get lost in a small town, and then somehow make friends and get invited to dinner. Then ask their grandma, “Hey, what are you doing?”
RR: And they are receptive to teaching you?
EF: I failed miserably a lot, putting myself out there, but those times that I got invited to dinner or ended up at a place where I can pop my head into the kitchen and see what they were doing, those were wins—huge wins. They had a great influence on how I cook. I just continued to do that, even though I only speak enough Italian to get myself in trouble, but they see that it’s not even a passion; they see that this has consumed me, and they’re like, “Let me show you.”
RR: Was there a particular experience that really stands out to you?
EF: There’s one time I was in a town called Bevagna in Umbria. It’s like a medieval walled city, about 2,000 people live there, and it has like 15 restaurants. One of them is an underground cave restaurant. We went there for lunch one time. They had this menu item called strapatelle, and when I saw the old woman making it in the kitchen, I asked, “Can I please go and see how she produces this pasta?”
During the day, when they make the bread for the staff, they’ll tear off little pieces of bread and they’ll throw it in the boiling water and then toss it with tomato sauce. It’s the most extraordinary texture ever. I kept the idea up my sleeve for a long time, and I would serve it to chefs occasionally, and they’ll be like, “What is this?” They couldn’t put their finger on it. It’s almost like eating a piece of boiled pizza dough.
Last year, I went back to the restaurant, and the woman had died. They no longer produce the pasta, and I can’t find anyone else who still practices the shape. In essence, that shape has now become extinct, and I have become the custodian of this shape. But this is what I do now: the archeology of rare and unique shapes—or even extinct shapes in this case—and also the anthropology connected to the shapes. Now I teach those who work in my pasta lab today; they’re starting from scratch, just how I did 10 years ago. That’s really what’s become of my career. I’m not really a chef anymore. I’m more of I’m a teacher and I’m a custodian of Italian traditions, and I pass those along.
RR: Do you worry about going too far down a rabbit hole with it?
EF: The world of pasta is so vast and its history so deep that I could study this my whole life and still not even scratch the surface. You’re looking at almost 3,000 years of Italy being a pasta-producing country. Really only like 150 years or a little bit over that of being a unified country. Within those 3,000 years, there are so many small towns and kingdoms that have their own culinary traditions that have been totally forgotten. Only the most robust and only the ones with the greatest story have made it to modern day. Like cacio e pepe and tortellini en brodo. Only the greatest and the most famous have made it into modern day. What about all the thousands and thousands of shapes that have been forgotten over time? That’s really what gets me going is that archeology of going back—the rare and forgotten and extinct shapes.
The most beautiful thing for me in pasta is the plethora of shapes. A little over 365 documented shapes that exist today—any shape that you can find in the grocery store—was at one time made in the home by someone with their hands and flour and water. All of these shapes were created by the ingenuity and desire to keep things interesting for their family when they had to eat the same shit every day—flour and water.
RR: Can the pursuit of perfection be counterproductive?
EF: I think to cook at the level that I’m at, you have to be [driven to perfection]. And there are way, way better chefs than me. I do not see myself as the best chef there is. Look at René Redzepi—that guy is on the next level. There’s just no way that I could even conceive what goes on in that guy’s head. Massimo Bottura is another one. Is he driven by perfection? Absolutely. Why is he driven by perfection? Is it the Michelin system? Or is it because he’s a maniac? Or is it because he’s so driven by what’s next? I don’t think that you can create perfection without studying one thing endlessly.
Repetition is the mother of all skill. Of all skill. The greatest example of this is my very good friend Kosaku Kawamura who runs a Laboratorio in Tokyo called Base. Technically speaking, he is the best sfoglino in the world. I learn the technical, maniacal side from him and the heart and soul from Alessandra Spisni, and that’s my pasta.
RR: How does his method differ from what you learned from Spisni?
EF: Kosaku taught me the technical side, to rip apart the shape and reintroduce it to itself and strip away what doesn’t work. Re-engineer it so that it works perfectly and it tastes as if it’s made by a machine. But the heart and soul can’t live within this technical world, so I’ve married the two styles. Kozuku only makes tagliatelle every day—that’s it. In Bianco, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and black pepper. That’s all he serves. He’s got six little stools, and if he has customers one day, no customers the next, he’s driven by perfection—by rolling the perfect sfoglias every single time.
RR: How do you marry such disparate approaches?
EF: I cook in the housewife’s style: casalinga. Those are the people that I learned how to cook from—housewives, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters. That’s where I get my inspiration because Italy is like that: It’s like mother’s love. It’s like grandmother’s love. It’s instantly familiar and comforting all at the same time and immediately.
But a lot of people told me when I first opened this restaurant, “You’re not going to be able to make any money. There’s no way. Handmade pasta takes too long.” No, it doesn’t. We dedicate just as much labor to pasta-making as a restaurant would dedicate to pastry. Pastries only make maybe 10 percent of revenue, if you’re lucky. Here, I make 75 percent off the revenue from pasta.
Kosaku taught me those ways to look at pasta and create formulas that work in a professional atmosphere, so that we can cure pasta, we can store pasta, we can sell pasta without it dying after a day. Most chefs will just make agnolotti. They’ll make it fresh, roll it out, throw it in the refrigerator, but the next day, they’re going to have to throw it out because they don’t understand how to cure it. They don’t understand how to store it or to keep it from going bad; they just make pasta. I’ve gone into the minutia of how to sell pasta in a professional place without the art overtaking the science.
RR: But, ultimately, the humanity of this style of cooking is what matters most to you, right?
EF: With Felix, I really wanted to express the feeling—the soul of the people that I learned from, my mentors. In essence, this restaurant would be a culmination of my mentorship. I wanted it to feel like a grandma’s house, but the grandma being Sophia Loren. She’s had this restaurant, or this house, since the late ’40s, and she’s continually kept it hip and fresh and always refurbished it and kept up with the times. But there’s all those little layered aspects that make it feel old, but it’s really very new.