La Zucca Magica, Nice

October 27, 2009

For the last twenty years we have been driving frequently right by the front door of La Zucca Magica on the west side of the Old Port in Nice. But we never went in. It had received some rave reviews and some of the other kinds. Mark Bittman of The New York Times wrote last year,

“Most unusual of all are the quality and the consistency of the food. Zucca has few equals among well-known Western restaurants serving no meat or fish. … And the flavors of just about everything, from cabbage to olives to basil to tomatoes, are just stunning, with the intensity for which the region is justifiably known. In midwinter, I ate orange slices topped with crushed olives, oil, and fennel seeds — that simple — and they nearly took my breath away. I ate cabbage and beans with garlic and oil, and even that was mesmerizing.”

Although not as ecstatic, the reviews in Gault Millau and the regional Guide Gantié are favorable, the latter calling the chef “the Pavarotti of the ovens.” There are many favorable Chowhound reports from visiting Americans.

The restaurant was already half-full when Tony and I arrived at 8:00 on Thursday, October 15, 2009. It eventually filled up completely and was very noisy. This made it hard to hear the waiter, which was important as there is neither a menu nor choices so his description as he serves is of interest. Everyone eats the same five courses for 29€ each. The waiter came by with a bread basket and asked what we would like to drink. We answered red wine; he came back immediately with three bottles: a wine from the Var at 20€, a Dolcetto for 28€ and a Canonica Bio Nebbiolo de Langhe 2007 at 30€. When we chose the last, he opened it, left it on the table and departed with the other two bottles. The Nebbiolo was nice, but obviously could have used a few more years in the bottle and some time in a carafe.

The waiter came back soon with bowls of a ribollita with blettes.

This Tuscan soup is traditionally made with leftover minestrone or other soup, day old bread and cannellini beans. There were plenty of the beans and grated cheese in this version along with the addition of chard leaves. It was good, a nice starter.

Next came polpettone with lentils.

On the right is the polpettone. In Italy that is somewhat like a meatball and somewhat like a meatloaf, but this one was made with pasty meat substitutes. On the left is a glob of overcooked lentils. There was a flavorless brown sauce to go with the two main flavorless brown parts of the dish.

The third course was a sandwich of red pumpkin with gorgonzola, onions, chard ribs, garlic and a tomato sauce.

There were slices of pumpkin on the top and bottom, thus creating the sandwich. The other ingredients were a mish mash that did not go well together, topped with a tomato sauce.

The fourth course was cannelloni, mozzarella, leeks and basil

This dish tasted much like the last one, with dry pre-grated cheese added. The lasagna sheet and the mozzarella were mild; the flavor had been cooked out of the leeks and basil so the tomato sauce dominated.

Fifth was an apple raisin strudel with ice cream.

The ice cream was good, probably because it could not be microwaved, but the strudel was soggy and heavy.

All around us were people who seemed to be enjoying themselves. La Zucca Magica, the Magic Pumpkin, is apparantly full for lunch and dinner most days. The decor is dominated by pumpkins and pictures of pumpkins all along the walls. In the back, visible behind a counter, is a “kitchen.” It is quite picturesque Dessin pinocchiowith old burners and ovens, candles, men in chef’s jackets standing there etc. One thing not there is anything being cooked. Food enters from offstage right, which cannot be seen. My guess is that there is a big bank of microwaves, a big pot of steaming ribollita, a freezer and a serving counter. One Chowhound report says that the food is cooked elsewhere and trucked in. The microwaving was evident in the inside heat of our three middle dishes.

La Zucca Magica is not really a vegetable restaurant as its sign says. There was no effort to offer fresh, seasonal vegetables in a way that shows off their flavors. They must have made a special trip to the Nice market when they knew that Mark Bittman was coming. A better description would be a French imitation of a country Tuscan restaurant with no meat or fish. Without these two there are obviously enormous economies. Further savings are realized by not having menus and serving everyone what is available that day. To their credit, and good business sense, the owners pass along most of the economies with low prices. Well, France is McDonald’s second biggest market so we should not be surprised that restaurants like this can thrive here, particularly in the midst of a tourist zone like the Old Port of Nice. One unfortunate aspect is that La Zucca Magica can mislead many people to think that this is what a vegetarian restaurant should be like. We will keep on driving by it from now on.


One Response to “La Zucca Magica, Nice”

  1. Gloria Raffel Says:

    I laughed when I read your review on La Zucca Magica. Your description reminded me of the meal that Forrest and I had there a number of years ago. We felt everything was microwaved! It seemed every course was red or covered with a red sauce. And nothing was good. It is definitely a place to drive by.

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