Sitting on a terrace in Nice with a good bottle of rosé, relaxed with the sun shining down on you, it just makes the food taste better. You can bring people in New York the same fish made with the same ingredients, but it won’t be the same as eating it after a stroll and a cocktail on the Promenade des Anglais. Still, I try to bring New Yorkers the closest thing I can to genuine Niçoise cuisine.
Of course, when people think of Nice, they think of the Niçoise salad. Unfortunately, restaurants here have destroyed the reputation of one my favorite dishes. Step into a New York bistro and you’ll almost always see it with big, pan-seared pieces of tuna sitting on top. In Nice, we always use canned tuna. I’m not talking about the cheap stuff; I’m talking about L’Isola D’Oro, fillets of yellowfin tuna belly preserved in Sicilian olive oil. It actually tastes better and is probably more expensive than a lot of the tuna you’ll find on menus in New York. I’ve always been a big defender of this salad. It’s delicious and, with the tuna and egg, it’s basically a full meal. Just never, ever put potatoes in it.
People are always surprised to find pastas like spaghetti, tagliatelle and macaroni on Niçoise menus. You’ll find a lot of basic dishes that are the same in Sicily and Naples as they are in Nice. That’s because Italy actually ruled over the city until 1861. My grandmother, Catherine, was Italian. I used to watch her cook when I was a little boy on my family’s farm in Gairaut in the hills above Nice. There we grew peaches, plums, apricots, cherries—all the fruits and vegetables that were in season. My grandmother would cook for the entire family, often simply sprinkling salt and pepper over a roasted chicken and drizzling it with olive oil. My parents told me that I used to stand behind her with a fork, stealing tastes of what was bubbling on the stove.
Niçoise cuisine is so difficult to master because it is so simple. Everything must be perfect; the ingredients must be of the highest quality, the seasoning must be just right and the execution has to be flawless. Mess one thing up and it all falls apart. That’s why sourcing is so important; if you have a great product, you don’t really have to add anything to it. Zucchini flowers, artichokes, fresh fish—why mess with what nature has already perfected? In Nice, we don’t use a lot of heavy sauces as they do in Brittany and other parts of France. We keep it light and simple: thyme, rosemary, basil, garlic and, of course, olive oil. Understanding olive oil is the key to Niçoise cuisine. Use extra virgin olive oil for cooking and it will burn and taste bitter; drizzle cooking olive oil on your food and it will taste bland. In Nice, they make some fantastic olive oils, but I prefer ones made in Sicily—they have a full, fruity aroma that really fits my palate.
In the end, I can try my hardest to bring the feeling of Nice to my restaurants through music and decoration, but it always comes down to one thing: the ingredients.
Alain Allegretti is consulting corporate chef at La Petite Maison in New York (with additional locations in London and Paris). Allegretti has helmed several notable kitchens in France and the United States, including Allegretti, L’Atelier and Le Cirque 2000.