Paris Might Be the Best City for Italian Food (Outside Italy)

When Julien Carotenuto, a Parisian of Italian heritage, abandoned his retail career to pursue his dream of making fresh mozzarella for his hometown, the predictions were dire.

“People told me, ‘you’re crazy,’” he recalled on a recent afternoon. “In Italy, everyone said that I would never pull it off. Even my friends and family said it would be very hard.”

After all, who could possibly imagine that refined palates from Roquefort-laden, Brie-loaded France — the king of cheesemaking nations — would possibly be tempted by a humble foreign interloper?

But Mr. Carotenuto, 33, churned ahead. He studied cheesemaking in Italy. He hired a veteran cheesemaker, Franco Picciuolo, whose father and grandfather had also plied the trade. He even found a French farming cooperative with buffaloes to provide milk for real mozzarella di bufala. When he landed a storefront in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, his operation, Nanina, went live.

“We started with just 60 kilos of milk per day,” said Mr. Carotenuto of the slow 2017 debut. “Now we use from 450 up to 700.”

In a room of machines, Mr. Picciuolo turned a long wooden paddle in a vat of molten curds, stirring the steaming mix into a thick, elastic white paste. In Nanina’s cheese shop, Mr. Carotenuto displayed a notebook containing the company’s client list: Maison Plisson gourmet supermarket. Septime restaurant, one of the city’s most-sought tables. Cucina, the splashy new foray into Italian dining by the superchef Alain Ducasse. And on. And on.

Arrondissement by arrondissement, the Italians are winning over the world’s proudest and most celebrated gastronomic capital, charming Parisians with Mediterranean humor and rolled r’s as they open some of the city’s coolest new fine-food shops, concept pizzerias, restaurants and cocktail bars. Upstart Italian festivals have even begun to flourish, including November’s annual Settimana della Cucina Italiana nel Mondo and Vini di Vignaioli, a Paris-based celebration of natural Italian wines, with its fourth edition on Dec. 15 and 16.

Some, like Mr. Carotenuto, sprout from the local population to champion their Italian roots. Others make culinary pilgrimages from France’s boot-shaped neighbor, swelling an Italian expat community in the Paris area that officially numbers around 160,000, according to the Italian consul general, Emilia Gatto, though she estimates the actual figure to be double that.

“I came to France because the French are the best culinary technicians in the world,” said one of them, Denny Imbroisi, during the opening night of Malro, his new Italian-Mediterranean-Arabian restaurant in the Marais.

As stylish partygoers filled the industrial-chic space, the chef, who is in his 30s, recounted how he arrived in Paris a decade ago, won a contestant spot on “Top Chef,” and then cooked in two of Mr. Ducasse’s gastronomic temples — Louis XV in Monaco and Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower — before opening Ida (“my family’s Italian food and French cuisine”), then Epoca (“100 percent Italian”), and now Malro.

“There’s really an Italian movement that has exploded over the last three years,” Mr. Imbroisi said.

Thanks to that explosion, Paris might now be the best city outside of Italy for Italian eating and drinking. With a few Metro tickets, you can journey from Venetian aperitivo culture (Hostaria Urbana), then south to Sicilian home cooking (Pane e Olio), disembarking occasionally at cozy wine bars (Tappo), massive indoor food halls (La Felicità) and new Italian restaurants from French celebrity chefs (for example, Piero TT, by Pierre Gagnaire). In April, the Right Bank welcomed an outlet of Eataly with a glittery gala, and the Left Bank should soon see a luxury hotel from the Italian JK brand. The marquee attraction will be a restaurant by Miky Grendene, the Italian creator of the exclusive Casa Tua members’ club in Miami.

Spirits and speakeasies

As the Italian spirit Aperol celebrates its 100th birthday this year, an unprecedented orange tide is flooding the French capital.

“All of a sudden the Aperol spritz is the drink that Parisians drink the most,” said Nico de Soto from the counter of Danico, the dual-level lounge he runs behind the chic Daroco Italian restaurant, formerly the showroom of the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. “I always try to put some kind of twist on a spritz on the menu.”

One past experiment included clarified kiwi juice, a pinch of salt and prosecco, recalled Mr. De Soto, a Frenchman who also runs Mace bar in New York City. Another involved a punch with booze, tea and milk, because “when you mix acidity with milk, the milk will curdle, and that acts as a filtering agent to clarify the whole cocktail.”

In fact, you practically need an Aperol detector to locate the city’s Italian bars. Like Danico, they are often discreetly tucked in restaurants or even hidden behind unmarked doors. Sometimes the best strategy is simply to knock on the walk-in freezer. Doing so grants entry to Moonshiner, a Prohibition-style speakeasy behind Da Vito pizzeria, as well as No Entry, a plush pink haven of vintage Italian spirits (including Aperols and Camparis from the 1970s) beneath Pink Mamma restaurant.

To sniff out the bar called Herbarium, however, follow your nose. In the Hotel National des Arts et Métiers, the sultry, candlelit space is overseen by the Italian bar impresario Oscar Quagliarini, a veteran of Lancôme and other French perfume houses who strives to add an olfactory dimension to his drinks.

“What I love about perfume are the emotions, and I was never able to find that in cocktails,” said Mr. Quagliarini by telephone from Milan, where he also lives and works.

Thus motivated, he has employed his scent-making skills to create “edible perfumes” that he sprays into his liquid creations. La Foret du Lac, for example — a mixture of aromatic gin and homemade pine-based syrup with a blast of pine-iris-sandalwood vapor.

Mr. Quagliarini has become a sought-after menu consultant for Italian cocktail bars in Paris, including Grazie (where the drinks list features concoctions like the Speakeasy, a mix of whiskey, Galliano Ristretto coffee liqueur, bitters, sugar and absinthe vapor) and Professore. On a Saturday night at Herbarium, fragrance jars and paper test strips lined the bar, allowing customers to sample each drink’s perfume. Behind the counter, a bartender poured a bottle of Mr. Quagliarini’s own Q brand vermouth into a Negroni.

One thing no one pours at Herbarium, however, is Aperol — which the outspoken Mr. Quagliarini once called “one of the worst alcohols in Italy.”

The pies have it

Perhaps nowhere is the Franco-Italian romance hotter than in the realm of pizza. After all, France consumes more pies than any other country (upwards of 700 million) except the United States, according to studies by the French consulting group Gira Conseil. These days you can hardly hurl a ball of burrata without hitting an upstart pizzeria, including many created by folks from the Mecca of pizza-making itself: Naples.

“Paris has become an El Dorado for Neapolitans,” said Julien Serri, the Franco-Neapolitan chef-owner of Magna, a new takeout joint for Naples street food, including rolled pizzas and folded pizzas, in the Pigalle neighborhood. “We’re like a family here.”

That family enfolds everyone from the natural-wine aficionado Graziella Buontempo — whose Da Graziella pizzeria is lined with vintage Art Nouveau tiles — to the purist Guillaume Grasso, the Franco-Italian scion of the family behind Gorizia, a century-old Naples pizza institution.

“I’m trying to transmit authenticity here — no tuna, no merguez, no fried eggs on top,” said Mr. Grasso, 28, as his Italian cousin ran around the year-old restaurant, Guillaume Grasso La Vera Pizza Napoletana, delivering bubbling hot margherite, diavole and other classics to a packed crowd.

Covered in flour, Mr. Grasso gestured to a framed certificate from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a Naples organization that honors pizzerias using the city’s traditional ingredients and preparations.

“You need a wood oven, and you need to leave the dough out at room temperature — refrigeration is prohibited — as well as certain varieties of tomatoes and mozzarella from the region,” he explained. “I’m not interested in making 1,000 pizzas per day. What interests me is carrying my family’s tradition.”

No such certificate adorns the wall at Bijou (“jewel” in French), an experimental (and expensive) pizza restaurant in the arty old Montmartre neighborhood. And that is fine with the chef Gennaro Nasti, an iconoclast keen to rub caviar in the face of Neapolitan tradition.

Not that the gray-bearded, 44-year-old lacks pizza-making chops. The son of a Naples baker, Mr. Nasti trained at famous pizzerias and in 2012 landed second place in an international pizza competition in his hometown. Arriving in Paris, though, he found himself liberated from Naples’s “static” pizza history and became enamored of French delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargot (which have wound up on his pizzas) as well as Champagne (which he sometimes mixes into dough).

“It’s high-end French gastronomy with Neapolitan know-how,” he said, sounding remarkably soft-spoken for a burly man with a nasty-sounding surname and more tattoos than most death-row inmates. “Paris is the world of gastronomy. Where better to make a haute cuisine pizzeria?”

The idea has struck gold with critics, if not all Neapolitans. Courtesy of innovations like a 50-euro pizza with Champagne-infused dough, truffles and Russian caviar, stars like Monica Bellucci have dined there, and the prestigious Italian food guide Gambero Rosso awarded Bijou “Pizzeria of the Year” in 2017.

An assistant placed an oven-fresh pizza before Mr. Nasti, who was dressed in immaculate chef whites stitched with the words “Champagne Laurent-Perrier.” Arranged like lady fingers, several rectangles of inch-thick cushiony dough supported successive layers of lushness — fior de latte, coconut cream and pumpkin purée — topped by an individual shrimp.

“In the mind of a Neapolitan person, it might not be pizza, Mr. Nasti said. “But I don’t care.”

Old-school, modern touches

Simone Tondo does care. About the indie band Cat Power which he listens to while running the kitchen at Racines, a cozy Franco-Italian bistro in a 19th-century glass-roofed arcade. About Martin Scorsese, whose films helped him learn English while growing up in Sardinia.

These cares pour out when you stroll with Mr. Tondo, a bearded, well-dressed 32-year-old whose culinary prowess won a Michelin star in January.

One day in July, he let his staff prepare the night’s menu — including tuna with raspberry and beetroot, and black sausage with Sicilian orange and red cabbage — and visited favorite hangouts in the 11th and 12th arrondissements, the area where he has (mostly) lived since arriving in Paris a decade ago. After coffee at the Old World-style Le Square Trousseau restaurant and pastries at Blé Sucré bakery, Mr. Tondo strolled the streets, musing on fried veal, poached calf brains and other old-school dishes to which he adds contemporary embellishments.

“The color code — I use that a lot,” he said as early 20th-century buildings drifted past. “You know it will work well with beetroot and raspberry because they are all red.”

“Italian food is like Japanese food,” he continued. “You can’t just add ingredients everywhere — you destroy years of history. The rule of two-to-three is good: main product, garnish, seasoning.”

In the Marché d’Aligre food market, Mr. Tondo entered a butcher shop, Boucherie Les Provinces, and asked if they had received any recent visits from the chef Giovanni Passerini, a mentor to Mr. Tondo nearly 10 years back. One fellow nodded and soon the two were guffawing about the Roman chef — “he plays the guitar and likes to drink,” in Mr. Tondo’s affectionate description — who headed Rino, an influential Mediterranean-modern restaurant that closed in 2014. Experimenting with food alongside Mr. Passerini was a rite of Parisian passage for the newly arrived Sardinian, even if it was sometimes a high-wire act.

“We didn’t know anything at all then,” Mr. Tondo said, grinning. “We just did whatever we wanted. We were just having fun.”

Rino’s end scattered its kitchen crew like seeds, but many members sprouted up elsewhere in town as pioneers of Paris’s new Italian scene. Mr. Tondo opened Roseval, another darling of the Paris food-blog cabal, before ceding the space to a fellow Rino alumnus, the chef Michele Farnesi, who has relaunched it as Dilia. As for Mr. Passerini, in 2016 he opened Passerini, an excellent Italian-Continental restaurant with minimalist décor and natural wines. On a given night, the menu might include anything from tripe stew to lobster spaghetti to fresh mozzarella — from Julien Carotenuto’s Nanina outfit, no less.

If you go

Young and design-conscious, the Italian new wave in Paris is fueled by a lightened touch, fresh ingredients, terroir-focused wines and original cocktails.

RESTAURANTS Sicilian flavors fill the colorful farmhouse-chic rooms at Les Amis des Messina (81 rue Reaumur), where Ignazio Messina serves a long menu that might include pumpkin slices in a sweet-sour baste or octopus in spicy tomato broth. Arrive early for an original cocktail in the discreet basement bar. Francesca Feniello, the chef at year-old Tempilenti (13 rue Gerbier) comes from Sardinia and serves pan-Italian comfort food like tagliatelle with hearty lamb ragu and panna cotta with ricotta cheese and cucumber salad. Amid the shelves of natural wines at Au Nouveau Nez (104 rue St. Maur), the Florentine cook Alessandra Olivi might be making runny poached eggs with green beans and Parmesan, or a meatless Mediterranean burger with crispy fried eggplant and molten scamorza cheese.

PIZZERIAS The Turin-based organization Cucina Italiana Senza Frontiere (Italian Food Without Borders) anonymously tested scores of Paris pizzerias last year to find the city’s best pizza margherita. Their winner was Sicilian-run La Massara (70 rue de Turbigo), which also serves its own house ale. French-owned, but bursting with Italian staff and ingredients, Dalmata (8 rue Tiquetonne) is a neon-bright fun house that creates sublimely spongy, smoky, lightly burned crusts for pies like the Black Delerium, a mix of ricotta, fior di latte, truffle cream, shaved truffles and mushrooms.

BARS The perfumer Oscar Quagliarini also writes the cocktail card at Grazie (91 Boulevard Beaumarchais), an industrial-cool pioneer of the pizza-and-cocktails formula. The French restaurateur Philippe Baranes, whose family tree includes the Italian painter Amadeo Modigliani, is putting the finishing touches on Amaro (38 rue Condorcet), a new Venetian-themed lounge devoted to Italian alcohols and classic Venetian bar snacks, or cicchetti.

EVENTS On Dec. 15 and 16, more than 80 natural Italian winemakers gather to uncork their bottles during the fourth edition of the Vini di Vignaioli salon, which also features dinners and tastings at numerous off-site Italian restaurants. Organized by the Italian consulate and other Italian associations, the Paris edition of the international Settimana della Cucina Italiana Nel Mondo (a.k.a. Italian Food Week) unfolds around the city every November. For future Italian culinary and cultural events in Paris, the Italie à Paris website is a vast repository of all things Italian happening in, and relating to, the City of Light.

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