Foodie heaven in Nice

by Mary.Novakovich

The capital of the Côte d’Azur, Nice is one of France’s culinary hot spots, mixing a strong Italian influence with the finest local ingredients

First-time visitors to Nice could be forgiven for thinking they’d forgotten to stop and somehow ended up in Liguria. A stroll through the warren of streets in the old town reveals numerous tall Italianate houses painted in shades of yellow, pink and ochre, with uniformly green shutters. Then you notice just how much Italian food is on the menu of the dozens of restaurants squeezed in among the tiny squares and narrow alleyways of Vieux Nice. It’s hard to walk a few feet without running into another pizza or pasta restaurant. And then you remember that ravioli was invented in Nice.

But the heavy Italian influence is just one of the culinary joys of Nice. The Niçois make excellent use of the fruit and vegetables of the Mediterranean coast, olives and olive oil, succulent lamb raised in the hills just north of the city, zesty goat’s cheese, and, of course, the freshest seafood. As you would expect, local tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and aubergines are bursting with flavour, and so much more is done with them than the sorry version of ratatouille we see in Britain. The courgette flowers, for instance, don’t go to waste: they’re lightly battered and deep fried to make beignets de fleurs de courgettes. Anchovies and onions make delicious bedfellows in a savoury tart known as a pissaladière, the niçois version of a pizza.

Even that hoary old staple of the French menu, the salade niçoise, can be turned into magic in the right hands. I once had a memorable meal at Le Padouk restaurant in the beautifully restored Art Deco hotel Le Palais de la Méditerranée, where the chef presented his own, very modern take on that ubiquitous salad of tuna, anchovies, tomatoes, green beans and potatoes. His version had freshly cooked tuna, fresh anchovies, quail’s eggs and flavoursome cherry tomatoes. And in good weather the restaurant spills on to the hotel’s vast terrace that overlooks the Med. It’s a blissful place to indulge your inner foodie, even if it’s on the expensive side.

Cheaper alternatives abound, however, even in the old town, which usually throngs with tourists. Slip down the Rue du Pont Vieux and find the Casa della Pasta, a delectable Italian restaurant set in a cave-like interior. It’s full of trendy young French people tucking into homemade ravioli (a house speciality), and it’s worth getting there early to avoid a long wait for a table.

Like every other French city worth its salt, Nice has an excellent food market. Every day, apart from Monday, scores of stallholders take over Cours Saleya in the old town, turning it into a lively and delicious display of fruit, vegetables, meats and cheeses, as well as a large number of flower stalls. (On Mondays you’ll find a big flea market in its place.) This is the best place to try a socca, one of Nice’s specialities. It’s a traditional pancake made from chickpea flour, olive oil and salt, served hot with lots of black pepper. Chez Thérèse in the flower market will sell you one for about €3, if you don’t mind queuing with locals and tourists alike.

Cafés and restaurants line both sides of Cours Saleya, many of which charge a premium for their prime location. Right at the furthest end is the Brasserie L’F, a funky restaurant that serves reasonably priced risottos and bruschetta along with the usual pizzas and pasta dishes.

If you leave Cours Saleya and head towards Place François, you’ll soon come across Nice’s daily fish market. In fact, you’ll probably smell it before you see it. It’s a pungent reminder of the incredible array of fish and seafood available in many of Nice’s restaurants. The Café de Turin on the edge of the old town is worth checking out for its fresh and tasty plates of oysters, prawns, crab, mussels and all the other goodies that make up a plate of fruits de mer. If you’re feeling particularly flush, visit the Chantecler restaurant at the wonderfully elaborate Hotel Negresco. They’ve gained their Michelin star by concocting exquisite seafood and meat dishes; if you want to try what is considered to be the best restaurant in Nice, but can’t scare up €90 for an evening meal, try its €50 lunchtime menu.

But you don’t have to spend colossal amounts of money to eat royally in Nice. Buy some of the delicacies at the market and head down to the seafront on the Promenade des Anglais. Now there’s a great place for a picnic.