In Marseille, bouillabaisse is to gastronomy what the OM team is to soccer: an institution anchored in the history and heritage of the city.
If many today say that the city's famous fish soup is somewhat of a myth, it's mostly because locals rarely even eat the thing. For one, in order to fill your belly with the traditional stew, you usually need to shell out a minimum of 40 euros. Instead of asking a Marseillais where he or she eats bouillabaisse, ask them instead where to find the best pizza—you won't be disappointed, as everyone has a favourite spot.
Pizza has become the one true Marseille specialty, omnipresent in the city's culinary landscape. It has its own legendary restaurants and well-known figures. Pizza is the food of the people, and it is found in places where people talk loud and eat well: You'll overhear strong regional accents at Chez Sauveur, the small pizzeria in the Noailles neighbourhood, or see locals hanging around the counter at La Vieille Pelle or Chez Etienne, which has been in the same family for four generations. The best place to bite into a slice might just be Chez Jeannot, where you can also take in a view of the small Vallon des Auffes harbour.
Pizza is found all over the south of France, but in Marseille, it's been a real love story—a story rooted in the Neapolitan influence on the city. In the 1900s, residents of Naples—who invented pizza in the 17th century—fled their city's extreme poverty, emigrating to Marseille with recipes in hand. "Out of 20,000 residents in the 1906 census, there are 13,000 Italians, including 10,000 from Naples. And that's not counting those who were naturalised," explains Michel Ficetola, author of Marseille, la napolitaine. Inside decrepit homes that were abandoned by the aristocracy, "they continued living the Neapolitan way, opening up pizzerias. Marseille residents saw how they lived and were inspired."
From then on, pizza carved out a place for itself alongside bouillabaisse. It was quickly adopted by the Marseillais as a convivial, communal meal—to the point where, even today, "some people think that pizza is from Marseille," laughs Michel Ficetola. In fact, in Marseille, you'll find places that sell pizza by the slice, as per Neapolitan tradition. As proof that "the Neapolitans are still with us, some families uphold that practice."
La Bonne Mère—one of those pizzerias that everyone in Marseille can agree on—holds to its Neapolitan heritage. "Here, there is pizza and nothing else," declares Mahéva, the cheerful owner and pizza chef's wife. She forges on: "Jérémie is from Naples and the two of us have lived there." A crispy, airy dough, tomato sauce on top, and real Italian cheese: What Marseille has here might just be the best pizza in France, and it's served in this tiny restaurant, which is packed to the brim every single day.
The ghost of Naples isn't the only thing floating around in Marseille's pizza ovens, however. With each new immigration wave come fresh flavours. Communities from backcountry Provence brought over the famous "half-half": half anchovy, half cheese (and Emmental cheese this time—French style). Pizza with figatelli (boar sausage) and brousse cheese is representative of the city's Corsican community; the Armenian pizza, with meat, is derived from lahmacun, a typical Armenian dish. In short, there are endless interpretations and reinterpretations of the classic Italian tart. "Pizza evolved from one generation to the next. Each community puts a different spin on it; each has its own sauce. It's what makes pizza in Marseille such a rich experience," says Michel Ficelota happily.
When it comes to news stories involving men and pizza, the Marseille region knows no equal, with one incredible story unfolding after another. By Aix-en-Provence, one pizza maker paid his lawyer in pizzas, totaling the equivalent of about 4,000 euros. Also in Aix, it's fairly common to find yourself in the middle of a huge street fight, with pizza slices flying between punches. Not to mention the pizza makers that double as cocaine dealers, or that famous one about the guy who assaulted delivery personnel.
But Marseille can also boast about its local world champion of pizza, located just a few minutes outside of the city centre by car. John Berg, Pizza Champion of France and World Champion in the organic category, has set up shop between a highway and a gas station. He is the one who trained Jérémie, the chef at La Bonne Mère, whose praises Mahéva was singing earlier on. Berg used raw tomato sauce and a light, hydrated dough—a method perfected over the course of 15 years. The champion knows his pizza: His flour is stone ground in the plateaux of the Hautes-Alpes; his mozzarella is prepared in Aix-en-Provence. "Between two championships, on the weekend, I hit the road and drove 8,000 kilometers to find other wackos like me, artisans who do their job well."
For him, "the real Marseillais dish is anchovy pizza. You can't find a bad pizza in Marseille." John Berg shapes his dough by hand, with love, lets it rest, and then starts putting together his famous pizzas with bewildering expertise. Like any good Marseillais, pizza is linked to childhood memories. "When I was little, my mom took me shopping for new clothes once or twice a year, near Canebière. She always bought me a dripping slice of pizza at the Noailles market—the kind you can't wait to eat, and ends up burning your lips."
There isn't a single Marseillais who hasn't passed by and ogled that famous slice wrapped in paper. It is sold at the entrance of Noailles, in the city's most vibrant arteries, where stalls overflow with fresh produce every single day. Once there, it's impossible not to make the detour to Pizza Charly, the market's most emblematic food stall. Year-round, rows and rows of pizzas are on display here, on the counter and behind the servers; the cooks are busy at all hours. People eat them by the slice, by the third or by the half. For a few euros, you can bite into a slice of creamy chicken, four-cheese or an Armenian, and all are generously garnished.
Next to the stall's bright signage, they proudly display their lineage: "Grandfather, father, grandson, since 1962." "My name is Charly, my grandfather's name was Charly, and my father, too," explains the family affair's current owner. "France is the biggest consumer of pizza, so Marseille is the capital of pizza. And this is the most affordable place to get it. The cheese pizza that we sell to go is a classic. Everyone knows about it; even my friends talk about it."
At 6 PM in the dead of December, dozens of people are in line at the stand. Next door, a competitor has set up shop, but gets far fewer customers. "He started the business 15 years ago. We never understood why. We fight sometimes, it makes for some folklore, but people keep coming to see us. We have our little secrets," says Charly, bragging a little. With an average of 400 pizzas per day, Pizza Charly is without a doubt one of Marseille's top pizza sellers. Enzo, a local, comes here often, at Charly's or the guy next door. He doesn't go a week without eating pizza. "When I was little, I dreamt of having a pizza truck," confesses the ex-delivery guy, who has since "reconverted" to another field.
According to the latest census, there are no less than 4,000 pizza trucks across France—and only 56 in Marseille. It's a "numerus clausus" that is hard to obtain, like taxi permits.
In Marseille, food trucks are everywhere: outside movie theatres, on public plazas, next to bars, outside the Vélodrome stadium. They are integral to the cityscape. And if it's really true that the pizza truck is the food truck's primary ancestor, we have a Marseillais to thank for it. "The story is that a flight attendant, Jean Meritan, saw French fry stalls during his travels and had the bright idea to do the same thing with pizza. He created the truck in 1962, without knowing what kind of phenomenon it would spark," explains Luc Gaston Garcia, the president of the Federation of Pizza Artisans in Food Trucks. For him, the time when the first trucks rolled into the neighborhood was a major event: "You had to be there to understand. Today, the pizza truck remains a meeting place; it fulfills a social role."
According to the latest census, there are no less than 4,000 pizza trucks across France—and only 56 in Marseille. "You don't want too many," reckons the union president, who likes to say that, with pizza, the most important thing is to have norms and protocols: "They are all listed, with official permits issued by the city. Otherwise, it's anarchy." It's a "numerus clausus" that is hard to obtain, like taxi permits. Once you're in the system, however, odds are in your favour.
Charles Alexandre, of "chez Pizzas Charly" (not to be confused with Charly Pizza), has held a permit for 27 years. He's even been vice president of the union, and shares Luc's view: "It's better to be part of it if you want to be protected. If you have a problem with the city, the union can defend you. For supplier discounts, and passing on the truck to your kids, it's convenient." John Berg, the pizza champion, started out working in a truck, but then decided he preferred being able to park wherever he pleased, freestyle: "I was part of the union, then I dropped out. Too many problems. You have to know the right people if you want to be in a good position."
The place to be on a game night is around the Vélodrome stadium, where hundreds of fans in blue and white scarves roll through before and after the game. Several trucks park a few feet away from each other. Everywhere else, sales double, and delivery can take over an hour. At 2 Frangins, the first pizza business to offer home delivery in the city, they have 10 delivery people working on the weekend. While Neapolitans eat their pizza on a plate, a Marseillais will eat it just about anywhere.
And if you get a four-cheese pie delivered to you on the shore, below the Corniche Kennedy, you'll fully understand, somewhere between two beers and the sea, why pizza was made for Marseille.
This article originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR in February 2016.