I'm glad that the furor over "fusion food" is finally simmering down. I'm not quite sure what we thought was so revolutionary. Don't get me wrong: A lot of great cooks are creating wonderful dishes that transcend hothouse exoticism to become soulful, exciting cooking reflecting the vibrant cultural mishmash of our community.
But what makes 21st-century fusion so different from the rest of culinary history? We've been borrowing and experimenting and reclaiming new foodstuffs since we were foragers. Who invented fish sauce first -- the Romans or the Southeast Asians? When did tomatoes, that venerable South American crop, become quintessentially Italian?
Nizza la Bella, which means "Nice the Beautiful" in the Niçois dialect, celebrates an ancient alignment between what we think of as two distinct cuisines: Southern French and Northern Italian. Now that both have become firmly entrenched in North American restaurants, this small, organic conceit -- call it fusion if you will -- allows Nizza la Bella's owners to serve modern-day comfort food in a comfortable setting.
The premise: Nice was once part of the Duchy of Savoie, which changed hands between the kings of France and Piedmont-Sardinia several times before finally being ceded to the French in 1860. Like other Occitan languages spoken in Southern France, Nissard (the Niçois dialect) is closer grammatically to the Piedmontese dialect than it is to "high" French.
Nizza la Bella opened for dinner in spring 2000 and just started serving lunch and weekend brunch two months ago. Chef-owners Evelyne Slomon and Eleanor Triboletti met in 1991, when Slomon, a New York-based consulting chef, worked with sous-chef Triboletti at Café Pescatore. Triboletti later moved on to stints at Bucci's, Zazie in San Francisco, and the Oakland Yacht Club. Slomon moved to the East Bay several years ago with the goal of opening up a place of her own -- "something small and manageable, a neighborhood restaurant," she says. "Eleanor and I combined our heritages -- hers Italian, mine French -- to focus on the food of the Riviera."
Long and narrow and painted a rich, saffron yellow, the interior is at once cheery and intimate, the picture of a friendly bistro buzzing with neighborhood folks. Squeeze into one of the high-walled booths that stretch along the corridor to the back and you're assured a noisy privacy. A small patio seating ten to fifteen, open to the street during the day, gets enclosed by a tarp at night.
The centerpiece of the dining room is a russet-wood mirrored bar stocked to the ceiling with wines and spirits. Drinking at Nizza la Bella is a pleasure, almost an obligation. A moderate wine list features French and Italian wines only; many of the more inexpensive vintages are offered not just by the glass and the bottle but by the carafe (half-bottle). Diners also can choose from a wide selection of aperitifs, cocktails, and after-dinner drinks.
The kitchen has its own centerpiece, a 6,500-pound wood-fired oven imported from Provence. "We use the oven for everything," says Slomon. "Breads, desserts, meats, even our mussels." A faint smell of open fire floats through the room, reminding you of the oven's presence. With the exception of the house fougasse, a foccacia-like bread with little more than a soft texture to recommend it, the homemade breads and pizzas that come out of the oven are a high point.
Try the socca, one of the most characteristic of Niçois dishes, a large chickpea-flour crepe cooked on a pizza pan in the oven. But be sure to eat it while it's hot. The amazing textural contrast between the papery, crisp exterior and the tender interior flaky with oil disappears if the socca is forced to sit.
It's hard to tell which of the other dishes are "authentically" Niçois in origin or style -- other than the Salade Niçoise, of course. French, Nissard, and Italian words pepper the menu, and quite a few of the menu items are bistro standards common all over France, Italy, and Northern California. At worst the dishes slip into obscurity, indistinguishable from the many other amiable versions you've had over the years. At best, they remind you why the French bistro captured our collective heart.
For example, the Salade de Chèvre Rocircti, a bright salad of mixed greens served with a dollop of warm goat cheese on a croustade, made me recall the first time I tried it in Paris. The vegetarian French Onion Soup contains all the sweetness of hundreds of onions roasted until soft and caramelized. I initially missed the beef broth that usually grounds and gives resonance to their sugar. The flavors popped, though, with each mouthful of the sharp-edged Gruyère gratinéed on top.
It's quite easy to stick to the standards and spend less than $30 at dinner; several entrée-sized items are available for $12 and under, including pappardelle pasta with tomato, pistou (pine-nut-free pesto), and chèvre, and a gratinéed mac 'n' cheese "grandmère" that I saw on more than a few of my neighbors' tables.
Slomon and Triboletti also offer a rapidly changing selection of pricier, more complex specials. I tried the day's incarnation of Biftek-Frites, a fine treatment of a fine ribeye steak, juicy and impeccably medium-rare. A small oval of porcini-herb butter slowly melted across the meat's surface, blending in perfectly with its juices. Truth be told, though, I found the double-dipped fries (the first dip to cook the potatoes slowly, the second to crisp them up) a little soft and greasy. More adept at hiding the oil was Triboletti's novel take on bouillabaisse. Fresh clams, buttery new potatoes, and baby spinach were oven-braised in a light, lemony broth emulsified with olive oil. A garlicky rouille red with cayenne and roasted red pepper kept setting off flares of intense flavor.
Desserts included most of the classics, though many were given exotic new Nissard names. My favorite was a crusted Clafoutis aux Cerises, a thick wedge of puff pastry filled with cherry-studded custard, at once flaky and creamy. A lush "Moussa au Chocolatié" caught my interest when the orange notes of Grand Marnier came through, cutting the dark bitter edge of the mousse.
Many of the standards make a reappearance on the daytime menu, along with a few extra sandwiches, pizzas, and daily specials. My companions and I loved the meaty housemade tuna confit on top of the souped-up Salade Niçoise, and thought the tangle of shaved red onions, yellow peppers, and red peppers served on romaine leaves was lovely on the eyes. Unfortunately, an indifferent vinaigrette failed to give the classic salad its lusty, chunky charm.
In the "La Pinza" sandwich a thick, soft half-moon of flatbread somehow bakes around a roasted chicken breast, bacon, and slices of mozzarella. Fresh tomato and balsamic vinaigrette-dressed greens are stuffed inside once it emerges.
Nizza la Bella sets an example of how good, solid food and an inviting interior can meld a restaurant to its surrounding neighborhood. With those two factors in place, mix up whatever cuisines you want -- the most important fusion has already taken place.
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