For most people Marseille means bouillabaisse, the once-humble fisherman's stew that has come to symbolize the city's rich cultural mix. But, as we drove to Marseille, I had one thing on my mind: pizza.
For most people Marseille means bouillabaisse, the once-humble fisherman's stew that has come to symbolize the city's rich cultural mix. But, as we drove to Marseille in our little blue Twingo (we have at last acquired a car!), I had one thing on my mind: pizza.
I might live in France's most Italian city, but I know that for really great pizza it's worth venturing a couple of hours to the west. Immigrants from Naples - the undisputed capital of pizza - brought this dish to Marseille, so it's no wonder the standard is so high. From little pizza trucks to long-established restaurants, each one takes pride in its crisp, slightly burnt crust, sweet tomato sauce and toppings: anything from a light scattering of anchovies and olives to layers of mesclun, brousse (the local ricotta) and Parma ham.
Let me say now that I am a pizza minimalist: as far as I'm concerned, the fewer toppings, the better. For me, nothing beats a perfect tomato and anchovy pizza, rare though it is; cheese is acceptable, but I'll tolerate little else except perhaps for a few basil leaves (making it a margarita) or thin rounds of spicy sausage.
If you're wrinkling your nose at the idea of tomato and anchovy, it's because you haven't yet been to Chez Etienne. I remember Etienne from previous visits to Marseille as the restaurant where they bring you pizza before you've placed any kind of order. To get there from rue de la République, around the corner from the Vieux Port, you take a very steep staircase that leads to a spookily dark street in the old town known as the Panier. Then you see lights and head towards them.
If you've thought to reserve in person (Etienne doesn't have a phone) or arrive early, you will enter a rustic dining room whose walls are lined with black-and-white photos of Etienne and various French celebrities who have eaten here, mostly in the 1970s and 80s. At the back of the room, the pizzaiolo works steadily at the wood-fired oven while the dining room quickly fills up. When it has reached maximum capacity, which happens somewhere between 7.30 and 8pm, the waiters start to send people to a second dining room across the street. It's better than nothing, but the main dining room is the place to be.
With no sign of the ageing Etienne, the service seemed slightly less tyrannical than I remembered. Whereas before everyone ate a half-pizza as a starter whether they wanted to or not, this time the waitress allowed us to order two half-pizzas and a plate of squid sautéed with garlic and parsley as the entire meal for the three of us. Each day, there are three or four hot dishes to choose from in addition to the pizza; another one on that Saturday night was a big steak presented on a wooden board.
Etienne is a pizzeria after my own heart: you can order tomato and anchovy, cheese, or half of each. The toppings are faultless but it's really the crust that makes the difference here. Thin but substantial, airy and crisp, it doesn't flop like so many thin pizza crusts and the edges are charred just as they should be. No wonder that I saw some tables starting with pizza, then ordering another round of pizza before the main course (we were the only small eaters in the dining room that night).
The final quirk of Chez Etienne is that there are no prices. At the end of the meal, the waiter just looks at you, does some sort of mysterious calculation in his head, and comes up with a number. Considering that I had been snapping away with my camera like a tourist, I thought we got off lightly at €45 for three with a half-bottle of wine and an apple tart. Did I mention the apple tart, which has a puff pastry crust and is heated in the wood-fired oven, then served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? It's well worth the drive to Marseille from Nice.
Chez Etienne, 43 rue de Lorette, Marseille (no phone).