We managed to snag a late dinner res on a busy Friday night in October at Felix for our party of four. The bar was packed sardine-tight with no hope of finding a place to stand, cutting into our plan to grab a cocktail here. Other nearby bars were equally busy. Instead my friends led a mini walking tour of the boulevard, fascinating for me to see the major changes in this part of Venice of the past decade.
Starved by the time we were seated after 9:30 pm, not being allowed to request a quick round of appetizers until our entire meal order could be decided was a disappointment. However, the house rules do allow a separate order of the breads to start. Whatever offense I felt dissipated when the Sfincione (Sicilian foccacia), $4, arrived. Baked in the wood-burning oven and served hot, the only way to describe this airy pouf of gluten is a fluffy cloud brought to earth and transmogrified into the most fragile of breads. Slicked with good olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and fresh rosemary, this almost melted in the mouth and was the best bite of the meal. I regret not ordering another.
The somm, Matthew, and the wine list were a delight. I wished I'd had more time to study it before needing to rush our order in. But it was an easy and quick decision to start off with Ettore Germano's "Herzu" Riesling, imported by my friend, Oliver McCrum. The bright acidity made a cleansing match with the fried appetizer and rich meatballs.
Fiore di Zucca, $15. Preemie zucchini with blossoms attached were fried with the sheerest veil of delicate batter. The crisp texture of the flowers heightened the textural contrast with the silken sheeps milk ricotta and fior di latte filling. This was my favorite dish of the night.
Polpette della Maestra Alessandra, $18. Sealed in by the fried crusting of the pork meatballs, the meaty juices dribbled upon piercing to mingle with the complex salsa verde's savoriness and dusting of parmigiano reggiano for a delectably robust mouthful.
Busiati Pesto Trapanese, $23. Much as I loved the basil-scented almond and tomato garlicky saucing, the overly thick coils of fresh pasta were a deal killer. Too much dough in the balance, making for a jarring divide between the pesto and cheese flavors and leaden, bland pasta.
Mezze Maniche alla Gricia, $23. Crispy guanciale might not be traditional but was appreciated by some at the table. Pecorino romano was too mature and gritty. Yet this simple pasta did taste awfully good punctuated with a load of black pepper.
Gnocchi di patate, $50. Our server had talked up how generous the portion of black truffle shavings would be. Indeed it was, but turned out to be a complete waste of money. In a clear demonstration that "less is more", the scent of the unpleasantly sandy chanterelles completely overpowered any contribution of the truffles. One or the other could have been fine, but combining the two was completely misguided. The teensy potato dumplings were lovely on their own dragged through the squash-crescenza fonduta. I found myself separating out the two fungi to compose a bite and would have enjoyed a simpler presentation far more.
Pappardelle, $26. The fresher and livelier ragu bolognese "vecchia scuola" tasted sweeter and more new school to me. The added funk of the 48-month aged parmigiano reggiano rounded out the brightness of the ragu beautifully.
With so much media coverage of the #FUCKYOURPASTAMACHINE manifesto thrown down at Felix, I sort of assumed that the quality of the handmade pasta would justify that attitude. Sadly, each of the four preps was a disappointment in its own way, as iterated above. While I ran into none of the too hard and stiff undercooked pasta voiced in complaints elsewhere, some textures were still off, such as the doughy busiati noted above. The handmade-ness of the pasta showed itself most in the pappardelle with thicker and thinner strands, though I would have preferred more of the suppler, silkier thinnish depth.
Cicoria, $15, salad of young multi-hued chicories featured an interesting salty-sweet interplay between the honey date, caper and pecorino elements. Bistecca di Maile, $30, featured pork shoulder steak grilled to perfect pink with pears, dandelion greens and sweet chestnuts.
One of my dining companions brought the 1999 Joseph Swan Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir from his cellar. Reaching middle age in maturity, this sang with the smoky notes of the pork main dish.
For dessert, first an olive oil torta topped with toasted pinenuts. A much lighter texture than the olive oil cake served at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, and a better ending for this carb-heavy meal.
Then the Budino di Nocino flavored with liqueur of green walnuts. My favorite part turned out to be the crunchy walnuts dragged through the creme chantilly.
Service was very attentive, informed and fun. But I should mention that one of our party is a Felix regular in case that made a difference. The din and the jostling of close-set tables were problematic for the first hour of our meal until the room started to clear out.