A few years back, Joanne and I were fortunate enough to spend a little time on the French Riviera, primarily in Nice, and one of our most pleasant culinary discoveries there was the PIZZA. On the one hand, this was no surprise – the French have embraced pizza as wholeheartedly as we have, perhaps even more so given the country’s proximity to, and shared history with, Italy – but pizza seemed to be EVERYWHERE in Nice, and in glorious variety.
Having spent a good deal of time in Italy, I’ve observed that the Italians have a somewhat limited visual and culinary pizza vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong here – Italian pizzas are great – but for the most part they are all kind of alike. In the south of France, I was stunned by the range of offerings, including white pizza and red pizza…paper-thin crispy crust versions and oozing deep-dish renditions…wood-fired pies and grilled ones (delicious)…some topped with a fried or poached egg, others crowned with French fries….some with puff pastry crust, and others with chewier varieties.
The Italians would probably insist on a sanity hearing.
But that got me thinking about why pizza in France was so distinct in character. It’s probably because one simply can’t imagine the French accepting anything culinary from Italians. Their ego can’t take it. They can’t help but “improve” on it. They would have to tinker (“No Italian cheese….Le fromage italien est inférieur.”) And I do have to admit that some of the pizzas deliciously incorporated the buttery flavors of semi-hard French cheeses like Cantal and Emmenthal.
It should not come as a surprise that the French are in the pizza business. Check out the maps and you’ll discover that France and what is now Italy have been joined at the hip for centuries. The separation occurred rather recently when Italy finally unified in 1861.
Another difference that we observed was the inclusion of a long-spouted cruet of hot, hot chile oil for drizzling on your pizza. (These really should be on the table of every pizzeria everywhere.)
Our favorite spot along Rue Massena was PIZZERIA CRESCI, where we fell in love with the classic French white cheese-less pizza called PISSALADIERE. It’s thick with deeply, slowly caramelized onions, tiny Nicoise black olives, rosemary, coarsely cracked black pepper and, of course, anchovies – and lots of ‘em!
So here’s the deal. At both SALUTs we started serving a French version of pizza a few weeks ago and it became immensely popular both as a shared appetizer and as a main course. In addition to a couple of delicious traditional pies, the most popular to date has been the French/Alsatian icon called TARTE FLAMBÉE, topped with sautéed onions, bacon (lardons), and Gruyere cheese.
Next on my list is the PISSALADIERE. Yeah, the anchovy one. That’s risky here in Minnesota, where we all know there’s only one anchovy in the entire state and it gets passed from restaurant to restaurant, Caesar salad to Caesar salad. But we’ll give it a shot. Stay tuned!
Finally in the French pizza department, a CROQUE MADAME BREAKFAST PIZZA that packs a ton of gooey, cheesy/hammy flavor was just trotted out for Sunday brunch at Salut. Check out the photo.