Amid shows where chefs get shot in the face with a “food cannon,” home renovators get kidnapped by the mob, and a mayor avoids FBI indictment, Shape of Pasta doesn’t seem like it’d be anything close to the weirdest title on the new streaming service Quibi. But like so much entertainment being viewed through the lens of the COVID-19 home quarantine, the short-form docuseries about rare pasta shapes now feels like a bizarre window into a radically different world.
It’s surreal watching L.A.-based pasta chef and “culinary storyteller” Evan Funke, in his TV debut, trekking through the Italian countryside, learning pasta-making from old Italian women, and gathering around tables to share dinners with large groups of people. Funke is out to learn about pasta designs that only a few remaining people alive know how to make, so he can preserve them. The show feels like a preservation of a pocket in time before the novel coronavirus hit.
Each episode follows a similar outline. Funke describes a pasta variety that only one tiny village or region in Italy makes. He treks to that village, while delivering some historical and cultural context about what makes this pasta shape so special. He meets up with a pasta-making expert — in each of the early episodes, an older Italian woman who’s been making the pasta since her childhood. He learns how the shape is made. He eats it. Sometimes he tears up because he is just so honored. And it all happens in under 10 minutes, per the Quibi creed.
The pasta-making itself, filmed in close-ups, is methodical and soothing. Each of the pasta-makers creates her traditional pasta form with care and dedication. At first, Funke fumbles along, but as he listens, he learns the shapes — and the fascinating stories that go along with them. One shape, strangulet, comes from a village Albanian immigrants once flocked to, so the resulting cuisine is a fusion of Italian and Albanian food. Nonna Cristina, one of the few women keeping the shape alive, uses a rare washboard-like tool handed down in her family for more than a hundred years. Funke is in awe just holding it.
Funke takes his job as a pasta-saver very seriously. He speaks with deep gravitas about his mission. Shape of Pasta would almost border on comical, if he wasn’t so genuinely earnest. The minute Funke encounters one of the pasta-makers, he reverts to student status. He’s visibly aware that these women, who have spent decades of their lives dedicated to their craft, all know more than he does. He’s there to learn, and when they accordingly impart their knowledge unto him, he promises to keep their legacy alive.
It never feels like Funke is overstepping a cultural boundary. As he told the LA Times, “If there were people to pass it on to, I wouldn’t have a job to do. Honestly, I would love to piss the Italians off so much that they actually say, ‘Why is this American guy doing what we should be doing?’ They should be paying attention to what is literally going extinct in front of their eyes.”
There’s something particularly poignant about sharing long-lasting family traditions. The idea of a recipe passed down from mother to daughter for generations is typically a heartwarming story, but in the context of how hard the novel coronavirus pandemic hit Italy, the show now feels bittersweet. We might never know how the women in these Quibi episodes are faring now. What we do have is a moment captured in time, and the promise that at least their traditions live on. Across social media, many people are now observing how odd it currently feels to watch movies and shows where people touch each other. Add the extra level of pensiveness, the recency of this documentary series, and the ways the world has changed since it was shot, and Shape of Pasta feels like a wistful sort of comfort.
The first four episodes of Shape of Pasta are available now on Quibi.
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