“Those who don’t know Etienne, don’t know Marseille,” insists a French weekly in a piece about the cult pizzeria. They were raving about both place, Chez Etienne, and person, the enigmatic Etienne Cassaro, who transformed the worker’s canteen his Sicilian dad opened in 1943 into a local institution that endures today. Though Etienne’s light went out in 2017, his son, Pascal, continues to carry the family torch – alongside a long-standing staff who have been there for decades.
Aptly located in the equally mythical Le Panier quartier, Chez Etienne is home-style cooking served in a homey setting. Inside a convivial room divided by stone archways, the tables are packed with regulars, tourists and politicians from nearby city hall (including Mayor Gaudin) who tuck their ties in their shirt to keep them from getting splattered with pizza grease. The habitués are warmly welcomed with French-style cheek kisses or a “bonjour, chèrie” for the ladies.
They come for the pizza: homemade dough and tomato sauce topped with oozy cheese or briny anchovies and olives; some split the difference by ordering a half-and-half (a moitié-moitié). The pies are deliciously blistered in the wood-fired oven so hot its arched interior is “all white,” explains Pascal. When asked if the pizza is Sicilian, he shakes his head from side to side. “This is pizza marseillais,” reminding us that while his grandfather and ancestors hailed from the Italian island, his dad, Etienne, was born in Marseille.
“This is pizza marseillais,” reminding us that while his grandfather and ancestors hailed from [Sicily], his dad, Etienne, was born in Marseille.
Many take their pizza as an appetizer before tucking into the rest of the menu with a bottle of red or rosé. The famous supions, or squid, cooked Provençal style perfume the restaurant with garlic and parsley. “The secret is in the squid’s freshness…and the cast iron pan,” assures Pascal, who dredges the supions in flour before sautéing them at high heat to create their addictively good browned bits.
Brochettes and steaks sprinkled with salt and oregano come sizzling out of the fire. Pair them with the vampire-slaying salade à l’ail tossed with a house-made garlicky dressing. The plat du jour includes typical Marseille dishes – pieds et paquets, sheep feet and stuffed sheep tripe, and alouettes sans têtes, beef slices wrapped around lard in tomato sauce.
If you have room for dessert, the panna cotta and flan are made in house while the apple tart from a nearby patisserie is tastily bruléed in the wood-fired oven. At lunchtime, Pascal mans the oven while the evening shift is helmed by longtime pizzaiolo, Azin. Lynne, the blonde 15-year veteran, and Annie, a redhead sexagerian who has been here since she was 14 – “before I was born,” winks Pascal – work the room, serving each plate with sass, smiles and syrupy Marseillais accents.
To add to the pizzeria’s at-home ambiance, the walls are lined with postcards from Sicily, yellowed newspaper articles, pictures of Etienne with his arms around diners, and historic photos of famous customers. Spot Jean Reno, the Prince of Monaco (sandwiched between Etienne and a brunette Annie), and the just-added Matt Damon, who was in town to shoot a new film, Stillwater, in August.
Near the kitchen, hangs a framed poem handwritten by Etienne himself. A stanza reads (in French):
All those who cross the threshold of my house,
you are invited to smile as well as eat well.
Here not chichi, just simplicity,
but the table and the welcome are as good as the best restaurants.
Come through my door, and I will show you conviviality.
Etienne would be proud to see the conviviality continues – so much so that you should plan to arrive early to avoid the wait. You can’t reserve in advance, nor pay with a credit card – an ATM is 5 minutes away if you forget to bring cash. Chez Etienne is open later than most local eateries with last orders at 10:30pm. Though Annie will make the international sign for bed (resting her head on her hands pressed together) if you try to linger late.
This article was originally published on November 5, 2019.
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