Marseille is crazy for pizza

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One of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, Marseille is a bustling melting pot of people and cultures. Despite its proximity to the famous Côte d’Azur spots and its stunning nature, even among the French, it hasn’t been really known as a holiday destination. It’s a city with its own distinctive personality and a victim of a certain reputation. Maybe undeservedly so, as I found Marseille young and diverse, with the growing art scene and lively street life this year “invaded” by the French street artist Invader. The INVADER WAS HERE exhibition extends from the contemporary art centre Mamo, located on the rooftop of the iconic Corbousier building, to the streets of Marseille. The anonymous French street artist is known for 8-bit video games inspired mosaics, which you will find anywhere from the abandoned buildings walls to the rocks on the beach.

Like I often do, I went to Marseille this summer for its food, or, more precisely the bouillabaisse. Over the years, the delicious traditional fish soup that originated from the poor fishermen kitchens has become an elaborate dish that consists of the soup, at least three types (but often more) local fish such as scorpionfish and, most importantly rouille, a garlicky sauce with saffron. Maybe due to its heaviness and price (it costs up to 78 euros per person at some of the best Marseille’s institutions), it’s become touristy or, for locals, a meal reserved for special occasions.

If you ask locals from Marseille what their culinary speciality is, the answer might surprise you. Forget about bouillabaisse, Marseillais are obsessed with pizza. Here you can follow it just by the smell. Pizza is everywhere, from trucks, which are still plenty around the city, but slowly disappearing due to delivery to home services to restaurants, but no place is as special as Chez Etienne. They say that if you haven’t been to Chez Etienne, you haven’t been to Marseille. Thanks to my local friends, I was lucky to dive into the real Marseille on my first night there.

Opened in 1943, this family-owned pizzeria is always packed with regulars who have been frequenting it for years. They take neither reservations nor credit cards. When we arrived on an early summer evening, there was already a crowd in the street waiting for their table.

The humble cantine-like restaurant is owned by a third-generation pizzaiolo Pascal Cassaro, an athletic and animated man of clear southern Italian heritage with closely cropped hair yet something vaguely regal about his gaze. It was his Sicilian grandfather who founded it and father Etienne Cassaro who transformed it into an institution. The ambience Chez Etienne is quintessentially Marseillais. Here you will find anyone from families with children, to young hipster couples, Marseille football club OM fans from the suburbs or local politicians.

With a ripe southern Italian undertone, everyone who is working here is a “character” and feels like one family. We are finally seated by a joyful waitress Sandy, who has known my friend for years, bubbly and dynamic. She puts a bottle of local rosé on a table right away, without even asking, which turned out to be the crisp, clean, vibrant drop that perfectly complemented the forthcoming tasty meal. The short and straightforward menu includes “supions”(fried calamari), steaks, but everybody comes here for the pizza.

The love story of pizza and Marseille began with Neapolitan immigrants bringing it in their luggage in the 1900s. Since then it has become Marseillais, which is typically “moitié- moitié”, half with anchovies and half with cheese. A combination that brings together the best of savoury, in two textures. The pizza comes to your table directly from the brick oven, burning hot with a generous amount of Emmental cheese and mozzarella on one side and just tomato sauce and anchovies on the other. Its base is thin and crispy so you have to be careful not to burn yourself with the cheese melting on your fingers. Indeed, I may have gone to Marseille for the bouillabaisse, but I stayed for the pizza.

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