Sunday, September 29, 2013

Alec Lobrano: One Restaurant I Love


Paris-based food writer Alexander (Alec) Lobrano (above) was traveling in Provence this summer and I asked him to tell us about one restaurant he really loved. He chose Chez Vincent in Marseille and sent this terrific review. A bit about Alec: He grew up in Connecticut and lived in Boston, New York and London before moving to Paris in 1986. He was European Correspondent for Gourmet Magazine from 1999 until it closed in 2009, and has written about food and travel for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Departures, Conde Nast Traveler, the New York Times and many other US and UK publications. He is the author of "Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants" (Random House), which came out in an updated edition in 2010. His second book, "Hungry for France," will be published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Alec has won several James Beard awards, and in 2011, was awarded the IACP’s Bert Greene award for culinary writing for his article “Spirit of the Bistro” in Saveur magazine, where he is a contributing editor. Alec’s website is alexanderlobrano.com and you can follow him on Twitter here. And here's what he had to say about one restaurant he loves in Marseille....

One of the best things about growing up in southwestern Connecticut was the availability of really good Italian-American cooking. My surname notwithstanding (long story, my father’s family is from New Orleans and I might be an 1/16th Italian at most), what I knew of as ‘real’ Italian food, were the delicious meatball grinders prepared from scratch by the gentle old Italian ladies in the kitchen of my elementary school cafeteria, the stunningly good red-sauce cooking of a neighbor, Mrs. Ferrari, and a few nearby restaurants, like the epic-ly good Apizza Center on the border between Fairfield and Bridgeport.

What I didn’t know at the time is that the ‘Italian’ food I craved also offered a fascinating sociological snapshot of my immediate environs. To wit, Italian immigrants arrived in large numbers in this corner of Connecticut in various waves: masons came to build the beautiful stone retaining walls of the New Haven railroad, then more arrived to work in the factories and mills of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport in the days when this tiny corner of turf produced everything from sewing machines (Singer) to locks, guns, typewriters and tires.

Most of them came from southern Italy and Sicily, and many of those who didn’t chose to make the long expensive trip to a country where they didn’t speak the language, ended up settling in European cities that were booming at the time and needed their labor—Marseille, then a big brawny port town that had exploded after the Suez Canal opened, for example. This explains why many years ago when I first went to Marseille--one of my favorite French cities--as a back-packing student, I was surprised to find ‘Italian’ food that closely resembled what I knew it to be back home.

It was 1979 and we were staying in a seriously seedy hotel in the red-light district, now much diminished, near Le Vieux Port, and we were hungry. So after walking around in the brine-tinged breezes coming in off the sea that long ago night--and reading the menus of a lot of restaurants we couldn’t afford—we yearned for bouillabaisse but a single serving was beyond what was then our whole-day’s food budget. Then we came upon an Italian place that looked good, and a nice older Italian lady overlooked our scruffy looks and set us up with a big carafe of inexpensive rosé wine at a sidewalk table. We ordered a single large pizza for four and were alarmed when the waitress returned with a plate of roasted red peppers in olive oil and garlic. None of us spoke French very well, but worried about the additional cost, I struggled to explain that a mistake had been made.

She shrugged. “Bon, c’est de ma faute. Mangez!”

We didn’t know what to do. As best I could understand, she’d said it was her mistake, but eat them, which was fine. But what if we were charged?

So these delicious looking glossy red peppers sat there in front of us until she came back with a plate of deep-fried calamari and put it down on the table.

“I said eat!” she barked and went back inside. So what the hell, we did, and the food was delicious. But why was she being so nice to us? And what if we had to pay? 

She returned with another carafe of rose and a gratin dish of eggplant Parmesan, cleared the empty plates silently, grinned, and withdrew. Our pizza followed, and then four cannoli. And when the dreaded little fluttering bill finally came, I turned it upside and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’d been charged for one carafe of wine and the pizza, and someone had written, “Merci pour l’Operation Dragoon!”

Totally unbeknownst to any of us, August 15 was the day the Allied Forces had first come ashore in the south of France in a military action known as “Operation Dragoon.” Before leaving, I went inside to thank the waitress and took a visting card from the restaurant, Chez Vincent. I carried it in my wallet for years, and I’ve since been back dozens of times, and if the food is good and generously served, what I like most about it is that it offers a sepia snapshot of Italian Marseille as surely as the Apizza Center on the Post Road in Fairfield, Connecticut offered the same of Italian Connecticut.

The last time I was there a few weeks ago, I went for a timeout from a regimen of excellent meals in the city’s many terrific new bistros, notably Le Grain de Sel. That night, all I wanted was some red peppers, some rosé, a pizza and the harmless show of the nearby street walkers mixed with the arrival of Pols and Molls in Lamborghinis and the grinding slow motion progress of a local garbage truck (the operator of the truck smiled at me and excused himself before putting the compactor to work next to my table). It was a warm night, and I wasn’t in a hurry so I was dawdling over a coffee when Rose, the white-haired patronne and part-time chef of the restaurant who was born in Marsala in Sicily 80 years ago, came outside for a breath of fresh air. She chatted at several tables, and stopped briefly at mine and squinted. 

“You’ve been here before, right?” I nodded. “That’s good, that’s good. Please come back again,” she said, and I know I will.

Chez Vincent 
#25 rue Glandevès 
13001 Marseille 
04-91-33-96-78. 
Open for lunch (noon to 2 pm) and dinner (8 to 10 pm) every day except Tuesday. 
To Get There: Head south along the Vieux Port on the Quai des Belges and just as it begins to curve around the Port, take a sharp left onto the rue Pytheas.  Then turn right at the first street, rue Glandeves. There are two parking lots nearby. If you're taking the Metro, the stops are Estrangin Préfecture &amp or Vieux Port Hôtel de Ville.

Photos: Chez Vincent owner Rose Suggello will turn 80 in January. Her mother, Madame Vincent, opened the restaurant with a friend in 1936. The restaurant is known for pizza, of course, but also for classics such as soupe au pistou. Credits: Restaurant exterior by Alec Lobrano. Photos of Mrs. Suggello, pizza and pistou by Jean-Daniel Sudres (see more of Jean-Daniel's work at voyage-gourmand.com). Photo of Alec by Steven Rothfeld.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you both for this! Actually, Jules, I think it is because of you that I became absolutely addicted to his writing. I truly believe that he is one of the finest food writers out there.

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  2. Julie-
    Thanks for sharing Alec's entire colorful and nostalgic anecdote. He certainly knows how to bring a setting to life for readers. And who among us now wouldn't want to check out this gem of an Italian restaurant in Marseille next time we're there? Merci beaucoup for bringing Alec and his restaurant reporting to our attention.

    A bientot,
    Susan

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  3. What a beautiful story! I tried this restaurant earlier this summer with clients and we all loved it. It was comfortable, had great food, the the Marseillais who came for lunch were friendly and fun.
    Sharon

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