Food & Drink - Nice - Traditional Food Specialities - Quality Label
Sometimes food just seems right when eaten in its native land, and the simple specialities of Nice seem pretty damn perfect when overlooking the azure Mediterranean under a clear blue sky.
"Good food makes a destination" says Denis Zanon, director of Nice’s Bureau of Tourism, and he's right. Nowadays of course the tendency is for the eats available along the south coast of France - as all around the northern fringe of the Mediterranean - to become indistinguishable and less geo-specific, witness the ubiquitous pizza. But Nice still proudly maintains its distinct culinary tradition and many restaurants in the city and environs offer a Salade Niçoise, some stuffed Provençale vegetables (“Petits Farcis Niçois”) or a Daube Niçoise, to name but three iconic dishes. However the quality and integrity of 28 modest restaurants have been rewarded by Nice city council with a quality assurance label for their “Cuisine Nissarde” - Niçois dialect for Niçois cooking. You will see this sticker in their front window :
These small quintessentially local restaurants - bistrots really - are at the modest end of the dining scene, with no gastronomic pretensions. We are talking traditional dishes, simple hearty home cooking that follows the seasons, often family recipes, using locally-sourced produce, and they tend to be cheaper than average. This is mainly because Nice’s specialities stem from “cucina povera” as the Italians say, meaning poor people's food: food of necessity from cheap local ingredients. Don't forget, while the Côte d'Azur may have attracted the aristocracies of Europe and the rich and famous for a couple of centuries now, the locals have mostly been poor, relying historically on the cultivation of olives, lemons and oranges. The Promenade des Anglais wasn't so named because the English toffs liked to stroll along it; it is named after them because they commissioned it in 1820 when the citrus harvest failed and the growers were all starving and desperately in need of paid work.
It’s the special weather and geography of the region of Nice, of course, which inform this cuisine: a warm sunny climate ideal for growing vegetables and fruit; rugged terrain unsuited to grazing animals; and right next to the sea. And it’s no accident that Nice has a distinct culinary tradition from, say, Cannes and Grasse to the west: because Nice is on the east bank of the River Var and until 1860 this was the border between France to the west and the Duchy of Savoy to the east, and the Duchy of Savoy included much of the present-day Italian region of Liguria. Hence the added Italian flavour of Cuisine Nissarde.
What dishes come under this banner of Cuisine Nissarde?
Salade Niçoise : lettuce, tomato, olives, tuna, hard-boiled egg, celery, green pepper, radish, small broad beans, anchovy fillet, onion, basil.
Pan Bagnat : a salade niçoise in a big bun - the “bagnat” meaning the bread is drizzled with olive oil and vinegar.
Pissaladière : like a pizza of caramelised onion, anchovy, thyme & olives.
Socca : couldn't get much simpler or cheaper than this: a thin crepe made from chickpea flour and seasoned with salt and black pepper. Scrumptious.
Soupe au Pistou : a vegetable soup with a basil & garlic paste stirred in.
Beignets de Fleurs de Courgette (Courgette flower fritters) : simply yellow courgette flowers deep fried in a batter.
Petits Farcis - stuffed vegetables, usually peppers, courgettes, aubergines, onions :
Capoun : stuffed cabbage leaves.
Fish soup with Rouille : a mix of locally caught fish but should include the red-skinned Rascasse, plus a strong garlicky mayonnaise to spread on croutons.
Pulpe (octopus) : grilled or marinaded.
Calamari (squid) : grilled or marinaded.
Fresh pasta, in all its forms: spaghetti, tagliatelle, ravioli, cappelletti, lasagne, etc.
Daube Niçoise : a slow-cooked beef stew with orange zest and olives.
Cod served with aioli, a strong garlicky mayonnaise.
Bagna Caouda - raw salad vegetables & hard boiled egg with a strong anchovy & garlic dip.
Tarte aux Blettes : a sweet tart made with chard leaves and raisins.
Straight away we can see it's a challenge for the foreign visitor - even intimidating - because these dishes with their unfamiliar names are not what we're used to seeing on a standard French menu. Plus most of these bistrots have handwritten blackboard menus, sometimes barely legible!
I have visited some of the label-bearing eateries and enthusiastically recommend them :
LOU PELANDROUN, 4 Blvd Joseph Garnier, 06000 Nice. See Tripadvisor.
A small friendly family-run bistrot offering a short menu plus Dish of the Day and take-away Pissaladière and Pan Bagnats sold out the front. Their Pissaladière is the best I've ever tasted. Local wines in carafe or bottled. The dining room is small and it's wise to book.
RECETA DE JOU, 4 Place deal Gare du Sud, 06000 Nice. See Tripadvisor.
Small, busy, bustling and friendly - next to the fish stalls of the renowned Libération market. A kiosk rather than a restaurant as it only has a few tables outdoors - most people buy to take-away: stuffed vegetables (courgettes, peppers, aubergines & onion, all with same sausage meat stuffing), sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs herbs & pine nuts, Pissaladière, tomato & mozzarella salad, plus a Dish of the Day. I particularly liked their round mini Pissaladières with a rouget fillet on top. Modest local wines in carafe; beers.
LA CHAISE BLEUE GOURMANDE, 8 Rue Gioffredo, 06000 Nice.
Only opened a couple of years ago with a local celebrity chef, this one is definitely at the upper ‘restaurant’ end of the scale with its smarter interior decor and printed menus. The Capoun was excellent. Has a proper wine list - and adjoins a serious wine shop nextdoor.
LOU BALICO, 20 Ave Saint-Jean-Baptiste, 06000 Nice. http://www.loubalico.com Opened in 1979, next to the modern art museum and the main theatre of Nice. The full range of Niçois cuisine, expertly prepared + wines in a dining room that's plusher than most of the other simpler places, if slightly old fashioned.
LE SAFARI, 1 Cours Saléya, 06000 Nice. https://www.restaurantsafari.fr Easy to find: in prime tourist territory right on the famous flower market square in Old Nice. So it's a larger restaurant with an outside terrace from which to watch the world go by. Offering all the usual Niçois specialities and more: the fresh grilled fish and calamari were excellent, and the thin-base pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven were good too. Slightly more expensive than the other smaller and simpler places, no doubt because of its location. While other touristy restaurants come and go, Le Safari is always there and reliably good.
I shall certainly be trying others on the Cuisine Nissarde list soon, so watch this space for more reviews.