“My greatest goal is to piss the Italians off so that they see what they’re leaving behind,” says Evan Funke, reflecting on his just-released eight-part documentary series “Shape of Pasta.”
When you’ve made it your mission to promulgate centuries-old culinary traditions on the verge of extinction, there’s no time for mincing words.
Through his sumptuous travelogue (now available on Quibi, the Jeffrey Katzenberg-backed streaming platform) the outspoken chef behind Venice (California) sensation Felix Trattoria proves his outsized dedication to pasta isn’t limited to his kitchen prowess. He’s equally passionate about investigating the stories (largely untold) behind the Italian staple.
American Sfoglino: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta, $22.99 on Amazon
Funke's 2019 cookbook is also well worth checking out.
Each bite-sized episode, which runs about as long it takes to boil a pot of water, highlights a veteran pastaiolo in her element, engaged in a craft that has been passed down from multiple generations. By traveling to small towns off the tourist track—stops include Trapani on the west coast of Sicily and Chiavari just outside of Genoa—Funke uncovers very specific approaches to preparing pasta shapes that you won’t find alongside penne and fettuccine on grocery store shelves. Beyond the exceptionally shot food porn (warning: this is a show that will result in Homer Simpson-level drooling), “Shape of Pasta” feeds the soul as it exposes the eye-opening skills and glorious spirit of its subjects.
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During a recent interview, Funke shared the inspiration for the show and what he hopes to achieve with it beyond igniting an international food fight. He also reflects on COVID-19 and how the pandemic has altered his perspective on the series and forced the chef to reconceptualize a successful restaurant model on the fly.
David Klein: How did the show take shape?
Evan Funke: The inspiration for me really started 11 years ago, when I moved to Bologna and studied under Alessandra Spisni at the La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese. She was really the one to open up the door for me to start seeking out other pasta makers in Italy, throughout the peninsula, that were still practicing pasta by hand.
Since then it’s been my mission to begin documenting shapes. I’ve been to Italy over 26 times for that specific reason, seeking out a specific region, a specific shape, a specific woman. Essentially going to those small towns, far-flung regions where a lot of people don’t go to tour… getting lost and finding people and somehow getting myself invited to lunch or dinner so that I could sit with these amazing women and learn these shapes first hand.
DK: Why does a pasta’s shape carry so much significance?
EF: Any shape that you can find in the grocery store today was at one time in its ancestral form made by hand by a woman.
Now can you imagine putting yourself in these women’s’ shoes? You have to make food for your family from the same two ingredients every single day. So what are you going to do? You’re going to try to find a way to disguise the fact that it’s the same. It’s semolina and water. That’s where these hundreds if not thousands of shapes were born. Having ingenuity and poverty. Those shapes that created a sense of feeling and a sense of place.
DK: Why tell this story now?
EF: The major inspiration for “Shape of Pasta” is connecting with those people of those lesser known shapes and attributing them to those stories and the family connection of a singular shape that their family has been making for six generations the same way.
The greatest challenge that I’ve found is that less and less young people are willing to sit with their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunts, their sisters. To sit down and learn that family anthropology that’s connected to the shape because there’s so much more distraction. There’s violin practice, and soccer games, and the internet and what’s on their phones so less and less people, young people, are willing to take the time to learn these traditions and they’re dying off at a rapid rate. Within “Shape of Pasta,” I’ve offered myself as a godson to retell these stories and document them at the same time.
DK: How has your perspective on the series changed in light of COVID-19 and the impact it has had on Italy?
EF: The crisis that’s in Italy is affecting the people that I have looked to protect, to continue to tell their story. The holders of these ancient techniques and the stories and these anthropologies are in fact the people that are dying. The people that have these stories and this history, this is going to accelerate the extinction of an extraordinary amount of information that has not been passed down.
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It will definitely accelerate the extinction of shapes that we haven’t captured and for me as a custodian of these shapes and of this information, it’s extremely difficult for me to swallow because aside from the deaths and everything else, it’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy all around. So many different facets of tragedy, it’s unfathomable.
DK: In what ways has the pandemic affected your restaurant Felix?
EF: The story of Felix and my story is not unique whatsoever. Hundreds of thousands of restaurants are in far, far deeper trouble than we are at the moment. It’s an incredibly hard situation to navigate because making long term decisions is absolutely impossible. The protocols and systems we’ve put in place are literally obsolete within hours of us placing them.
That said, chefs overall, as a creature, are highly adaptable individuals and have been taught through their upbringing to operate within this very thin margin and this duality of being 100 percent unwavering within your standards but also adaptable minute to minute to any and all changes that might be thrown at them. Our ability to adapt, our ability to pivot and continue to be creative all the while supporting as many staff members, community members, and front line responders, that’s been our main goal.
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DK: How long is the current model sustainable?
EF: We don’t know. On March 14, I had a completely sold out dining room. And the next day, we had to literally downsize the business model and essentially go from a fine dining restaurant to a takeaway business.
Fortunately, the food that we’ve been able to pivot towards travels fairly well. The focaccia, the pizza, the meatballs and things of that nature. We’ve leaned heavily on those. It’s a model that is in flux. It’s a model that is being assessed literally hour to hour to see what works, what doesn’t.
It’s like opening a brand new restaurant. We assess on a daily level. You assess, you adjust and then you attack because there’s no time to waste.
DK: Moving back to “Shape of Pasta,” what do you hope viewers are able to take away from the series?
EF: I’m a teacher at heart. I always have been. If I can get just one viewer to look at the plate of pasta that they have in front of them that they’re eating at a restaurant or eating at home to think of pasta in a different way, then I win. If I can get them to engage in just a small amount of the information that we’re putting forth in this show and to think of all of the people and the history behind what they’re eating, then it’s a win.
I think my ultimate goal for the show is to just tell the story again. Just tell it one more time. That is literally the succession of how pasta has traveled throughout history. The word of mouth. The passage from generation to generation. I just want to be one small cog in the passage of those histories and the passage of that technical knowledge.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Header image courtesy of Quibi