Eat for… €5

The chairs are plastic. The cups are disposal. The sun never quite reaches the terrace. Luckily for Voglia mi pizza (“I want pizza”), it makes a damn fine pizza.  The popular bakery next door, Voglia mi pane (“I want bread”), owned and run by the same family, supplies the restaurant with its unique fennel-seed flavoured pizza bases. The result is a range of around fifteen crispy, thin and über fresh pizzas topped with market-bought vegetables  – all for around €3. Perfect with a chilled Sicilian beer (€2).

Address: Via Chiavettieri, Palermo.


Eat for… €7

According to the folks at Kus Kus, their signature dish was introduced into Sicily by fishermen from Tabarca, an island off the coast of Tunis, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Made from semolina flour and served with garlic, olive oil, spices, chilli and vegetables, meat or fish, couscous is cooked in a glazed ceramic pot – the “mafaradda Siciliana” – that has a slightly higher body and taller neck than a North African tajine. Semolina is much less finely ground in Sicily too, and there’s a heavy emphasis on saffron, nuts and olive oil, so the local dish tends to be more intense, course and salty.

A small, family-run restaurant opened in 2004, Kus Kus makes everything on the premises. If you want a glimpse of the kitchens, use the take-away entrance on Piazza Virgilio, rather than the sit-down entrance on Via del Fervore. Take-away is also a lot cheaper – half the price in fact. We paid about €15 for two generous servings of fish coucous, with two rolled sardines stuffed with pine nuts, and a large beer.

Address: Piazza Virgilio, 9, 90141 Palermo.




Nu Hotel, Milan

Shoehorned between a working men’s pizzeria and a cut-price supermarket on Milan’s north-eastern industrial strip, the NU looks surprisingly relaxed. Even cheery. Its bright, raw concrete entrance juts out eccentrically at 45 degrees – Frank Gehry comes to mind – while its boxy wooden shutters and checkerboard of square windows have a soothingly Everyman, Fifties feel about them. If it didn’t have NU HOTEL written on it, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived at the HQ of a start-up cool enough to make it on the wrong side of the tracks.

Then again, it did used to be factory – a fact that architects Nisi Magnoni and Sabrina Gallini were careful to work into their design. Open the door into the foyer – nearly twice the height of your average person, and ten times as wide – and you actually remove the wall. Above the sleek fender-like reception desk, naked bulbs cascade down a geometric light-well made up of giant cogs, like a huge Futurist sculpture. Behind burnt-wood doors, every room has a dimension-bending element – a vast, frosted workshop window, an oversized Sonora lamp by Vico Magistretti, or a brushed steel clothes rack framing the bedhead – that plugs directly into the neighbourhood’s manufacturing past. Our room had a balcony that twisted into a jagged Z shape, giving a dynamic perspective of the post-industrial landscape.


It’s probably a safe bet that Via Feltre never felt the soft slap of D&G mules before the NU arrived. Reviewers often refer to the district around Udine metro station as Lambrate, its slightly more gritty, bar-hopping southern sister. But there’s nothing particularly cool about this side of town. Still, if you like Milan – a city that feels like its channeling Rome, Paris, Shoreditch and Budapest all at the same time – the chances are you’ll like Udine. You can pay a fortune for an overheated box room with Soviet-style amenities in this city (if it was a country, Milan would have the world’s 28th largest economy, with the smallest surface area…), so you can’t beat the NU on price and quality, especially since it’s just three short metro stops from the central train station.


The NU is the brainchild of Massimo Gao, founder of the city’s famous Japanese restaurant of the same name. Gao has opened a dining room on the hotel’s terrazzo enclosed by six five-metre high glass walls. It’s not a million miles from the modern tea houses you sometimes find in high-end districts of Tokyo. Here, guests can enjoy a breakfast buffet of fresh sushi (among more traditional fare) as they watch the sun rise over Milan.

Room to Improve

The staff can come across as a little lost and sullen, with a scared glint in their eyes, but it’s better than the look of loathing and distain some other hip hotels supply as part of the service.

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Carré Lorca / Vieux Nice

I’m sitting next to a black and white photograph of Alain Llorca, his white chef’s tunic stretched tight over his pot belly. He’s got a smile on his face (or is he laughing?) and he’s looking straight into the restaurant. He’s unmistakably confident – or certainly confident enough to assume you know who he is.  His photo is hung on a bare 16C limestone wall, over a stripped wooden floor, next to a transparent glass wine ‘cellar’ into which curious diners regularly disappear with the mâitre d’. Designed by architect Paul Valet, the restaurant is open, pared-down and breezy: from where I’m sitting on the upper floor, I can see everyone else in the restaurant – the balustrades are made of glass and there are no dividing walls – and straight into the kitchen, where Spanish chef Gabriella Stockler Martinez, who spent two years training under Llorca at his three-star restaurant in La Colle sur Loup, is overseeing my fresh ravioli in a warm courgette soup with crunchy courgettes and feisty local olives, followed by a delicately poached turbot,  seasoned to perfection, with charcoal grilled asparagus and chorizo. My dessert, a gooseberry flan, like everything on the dessert tray, was made by patissier Jean-Michel Llorca, brother of Alain Llorca. We chose a “slow fuse” white Provençal selected by Llorca himself: slightly sour and water-light before we started the meal, its sharpness mellowed into fruity, chalky tones with a mineral aftertaste as the meal went on. At 7 to 9 euros for a starter, 12 to 16 euros for a main, and dessert at a staggering €5.50, it’s the same price as a tourist trap on the Cours Saleya.  And the locals know it, so book if you can.

Liked: friendly, highly-professional and knowledgeable staff

Didn’t like: noisy when full

3 rue de la Préfecture, 06300, Nice

Tel. 04 93 92 95 86

Ecole de Nice / Vieux Nice

One of a couple of bistro-style restaurants recently opened by Michelin-starred chefs in Nice, Ecole de Nice serves quality Niçois food – farcis, grilled fish, baked southern vegetables and lashings of olive oil – for people without a yacht-sized budget. The fact that it was opened by one-star Japanese chef Keisuke Matsushima (owner of Saison and the eponymous Keisuke Matsushima) only adds to the intrigue.  I chose farcis – southern vegetables stuffed with veal and pork mixed with breadcrumbs – which came in a Miso-like cloud of vegetable stock, followed by roast duck with a balsamic cherry sauce, with all the punch and texture of traditional Chinese hoisin sauce, without the heavy starchiness. Paired with feathery tempura-style courgette flower beignets and finished with a torte de blette, a traditional sweet Swiss chard tart, which was surprisingly light and crumbly, this is fusion food with a reserved and respectful edge.  The only thing I don’t like is the art gallery lighting, although in the restaurant’s defence, it is co-owned by an art collector who has generously displayed some of his collection – all by members of the Ecole de Nice art movement (Ben, Arman, etc.) – around the room. Located in the residential Musiciens neighbourhood, it has struggled to attract custom and dropped its prices to €18 for two courses and €25 for three. A bargain. However, recent coverage in the Wall Street Journal and local word of mouth has made it tough to get a table, so it’s advisable to book.

Upside: Matsushima often waits the tables on busy nights. A rare opportunity to meet the man himself before he climbs too far up the ladder.

Downside: Tripadvisor gives a thumbs down to the regular Savoie-born waiter, but this isn’t the States. He knows his stockfish from his socca. And if you’re visiting from Tokyo, he speaks Japanese.

16, rue de la Buffa, Nice
Tel. 04 93 81 39 30

Fancy meeting you here, Mr Léger!

“You’ll never believe how much I paid for this!” my friend says, wrapping up a sky-blue plate in a bundle of old newspapers. “€60! It’s priceless.”

We’re standing in the middle of the antiques market on place du Marché Fourville. A rather breezy Art Deco hall in central Cannes.

The plate – by cubist artist Fernand Léger, no less – is the sort of work that normally travels with its own bodyguard.

My friend, on the other hand, is less valued locally.

He’s what’s known as an “art nose”. He can sniff out a fake – or a masterpiece – at a thousand paces.

I’d arranged to follow him around three of the city’s top art markets and warehouses to test out the legend that Cannes is awash with unrecognised masterpieces. And it had got off to a pretty promising start…

Antiques market, Place du Marché Fourville, Cannes. Every Monday 8am to 6pm.

A deceptively down-at-heel market selling everything from Fifties Gucci flats to crystal fruit bowls and fading water-colours, this is the perfect place to start your city trawl. During our 30-minute visit, we picked up a signed set of lithographs by Picasso, printed to celebrate the completion of the La Guerre et La Paix fresco in Vallauris, for €200 (market price €2000) and a rare – but chipped – 19th century Japanese ivory sculpture for €150 (market price once restored €1500) virtually identical to one sold at Christie’s last week.

Insider tip: Don’t be fooled by appearances: a chipped statue can sometimes hide a priceless gem. Swot up on high-end auction sites like When it comes to books, go for limited editions in short print runs.

Il était une fois… à Cannes, 106 Bd Du Midi, Cannes La Bocca. Daily 9.30am-6pm.

This ranch-like furniture-and-fixtures warehouse opposite the tiny port of Béal on the Bay of Cannes is owned by an upscale carpenter and vintage furniture fan. Fewer masterpiece-spotting opportunities but we snapped up a ceramic stool by currently-undervalued Fifties actor and sculptor Jean Marais for €80.

Insider tip: Artists drop and rise in value, just like stocks and shares. If you’ve got the space, buy now and profit later.

Art Depot, 1635 Chemin de la Plaine, Mougins, Tuesday to Saturday 9.30am-12.30pm, 2.30-7pm. Monday 2.30-7pm.

An upmarket end-of-series furniture and art store run by English- and Italian-speaking duo Stéphanie, daughter of an antiques dealer, and Eric, who have an eye for up-and-coming local artists. We snapped up a monumental canvas by auction-friendly Nice-based painter Jacqueline Gainon for €260.

Insider tip: Today’s unknowns are tomorrow’s Picassos – so go with your gut. The warehouse is too small to fit everything in, so have a word with Stéphanie if you’re on the look-out for something special.

Hmm, c’est bon

From homely French cooking and Bono-inspired brunches to roof-top finger food and “sophisticated deli” fare, the foodie scene in Cannes turned it up a notch in 2012. Here’s a snapshot of who made it down this year’s culinary red carpet.

La Toque d’or

Despite opening just six months ago, this modest eatery is already threatening to wrestle back the gastronomic crown from Cannes’ luxury hotels. Trained under the Riviera’s top chefs, husband-and-wife team Steven and Magalie Trucco offer a Mediterranean menu made from local produce (the restaurant is just a courgette’s throw from Fourville market), including meat from the award-winning Boucherie du Bosquet. “My favourite recipe? Pig’s cheek with porcini mushrooms,” says Steven, almost apologetically. “The simplest dishes are always the best!”

Address 11 rue Louis Blanc – Tel. 04 93 39 68 08. Open Tuesday to Sunday.

Cost €65pp.

Sea Sens

Nicknamed “the serial cooker” because of his extraordinary culinary repertoire, Arnaud Tabarec recently took the city’s roof-top dining scene to a whole new level. Head-hunted last July by top chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel (the guardians of the Five Hotel and Spa’s gastronomic reputation), this globe-trotting foodsmith has wowed the critics with his French-Singaporean fusion finger food served to live DJ sounds in the hotel’s minimalist poolside brasserie. The mini cheese burgers with wagyu beef and comté are out of this world.

Address 1 rue Notre-Dame – Tel. 04 63 36 05 06. Open 7pm to 1am.

Cost €80

3.14 Cannes

Launched just three months ago and already a Cannes institution, Sunday brunch at 3.14 Cannes – the favourite haunt of Bono at film festival time – is the brainchild of Italian chef Mario d’Orio, a Croisette veteran with 38 years of culinary invention under his belt. “My menu’s brimming with sunshine,” says Mario. “I play the matchmaker: I bring cultures together.” The buffet selection of salade niçoise with white tuna, spicy tabbouleh and a trusty potato gratin certainly fits the bill.

Address 5 Rue François Einesy, Cannes – Tel 04 92 99 72 00. Sunday brunch 11am-5pm.

Cost €38

Le Relais

There’s sibling rivalry afoot at the Hôtel Martinez. When top chef Christian Sinicropi unveiled his new menu for Le Relais, the hotel’s “sophisticated deli”, last August, he didn’t expect its rustic line-up of regional dishes, such as sea bass and red pepper marmalade flavoured with aniseed, followed by cherry trifle with rosé champagne jelly, to win over a visiting sell-out pop star who snubbed the Martinez’s premier-league restaurant, La Palme d’or, in favour of this young upstart. The staff are far too discreet to name names…

Address 73 La Croisette, Cannes  – 04 92 98 74 12. Open daily.

Cost €120

This article first appeared in Vertu Select magazine in November 2012.

The man who got into a clay fight with Picasso: part II

Picasso moved to Cannes with his new partner, Jacqueline, in 1955. After six happy years, he suddenly left the city in 1961. In this second instalment of my interview with Frédéric Ballester, the director of the Malmaison art centre in Cannes, who met the artist as a child, I explore Picasso’s sudden decision to abandon the city and why Jacqueline decided to return after his death.

Picasso was very happy in Cannes. Why did he leave?

There was a building boom and by the late 1950s his house – La Californie – was surrounded by a forest of cranes. He applied to build a roof terrace, but the town refused him permission. That made him really angry! He’d also started experimenting with sheet metal. His studio at Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins was better equipped for that type of work.

What became of La Californie after Picasso left?

Picasso rarely sold his homes. He used them to store his collections. That was especially true of La Californie. When he had to vacate his house in Paris, he sent most of the contents to Cannes. It was packed with priceless works by Miro, Rousseau, dozens of Primitivists, and hundreds of his own paintings and sculptures. It’s hard to believe now, but there was no security. Not even an alarm! When you walked past, you could see no one was home. Where the sculpture park had once been, the grass was waist-high. It’s hard to tell how many works were stolen from the house. Some came to light just recently. In the early 1960s, someone wrote to Picasso and told him they’d seen smoke in his garden. When he checked, he found a man squatting in his chicken coop. He hadn’t even noticed!

When Picasso died in 1973, Jacqueline often returned to Cannes. How did she cope with his death?

From the time I set up La Malmaison in 1982 to her death in 1986, I spent many hours with Jacqueline. Picasso’s death knocked her sideways. It left a huge void in her life. I think that’s why she took her own life. She was surrounded by vultures who were only interested in one thing: Picasso’s works. I regret not going more often. I used to visit and wonder if I was bothering her. When I did, she talked about Picasso all the time. Cannes was filled with happy memories: she just couldn’t let go.

This article first appeared in the September issue of Vertu Select magazine.

The man who got into a clay fight with Picasso: part I

When Picasso was searching for a home for himself and his new wife, Jacqueline Roque, in the Spring of 1955, the artist settled on a secluded villa high in the hills above Cannes. An exotic Moorish-style residence walled by a dense tropical park, La Californie enjoyed commanding views over the Bay of Cannes. Until his departure in 1961, Picasso filled every room with thousands of new works, from Mediterranean landscapes to experimental metal sculptures. Frédéric Ballester, founder of the Malmaison Art Centre in Cannes and curator of its summer exhibition, Les Chemins du Sud, was a regular visitor. In the first instalment of a two-part interview, I talk to him about his memories of Picasso, why he moved to Cannes and its influence on his work.

What’s your first memory of Picasso?

I was six years old. My parents, good friends of Picasso, called on him at his ceramics studio in Vallauris. I remember the pottery drying in the sun, the smell of clay, the smoke hanging over the town, and an old man rolling up little balls of clay and throwing them at me. It all ended in a clay fight!

Why did he move to Cannes?

When Picasso left his first wife, François Gilot, in 1953, I think Jacqueline pushed him to leave Vallauris. He wanted a big house but he didn’t want to go too far away. La Californie was perfect.

How did Cannes influence his work?

When he arrived at La Californie, he was brimming with new ideas and you can particularly see the influence of Matisse in his work. It marked a break with Antibes and a return to painting, landscapes and Mediterranean themes. When you look at a painting like La Baie de Cannes, you sense a sort of bulimia. He deconstructs the town and turns it towards us because he wants to fit everything into the picture.

Although he was in his 80s when he lived in Cannes, there’s a sense of renewal about his work. He’d left one woman and moved in with another. It was a new adventure. Jacqueline was a breath of fresh air. She was going to protect him at the end of his life. She gave him energy. She used to tell me how much she loved this powerful man who remained strong right to the end, and whose death would leave a fatal void in her life…

This interview appeared in Vertu Select magazine in August 2012.

What did the Gauls ever do for us?


The Gauls left surprisingly few visible marks on the French landscape, despite controlling an area covering most of modern day France (including the village of Forges-Les-Eaux) from the 5th century BC to the arrival of the Romans in 58 to 51 BC.  Rather unsurprisingly, then, until the late 18th century, they were considered to be hairy, illiterate, warlike and pagan forest-dwellers, living off berries and hunting, just waiting from the arrival of the Romans… and proper buildings.

But this grain of beech pollen proves them wrong.

Featured in one of seven hands-on workshops at The Incredible Gauls exhibition at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, which runs until September 2012, it reveals the work of one of archaeology’s unsung heroes: palynologists. Specialists in pollen, palynologists can instantly visualise an ancient landscape simply by looking at pollen under a microscope. They can also compare pollen numbers over the centuries or even millennia (pollen can survive for millions of years in damp ground).

When palynologists look at pollen from Forges-Les-Eaux, they see a dramatic drop in the number of beech trees, and other species of trees, around the time of the Gauls, who were obviously busy felling them to make way for fields and to forge iron tools, which were vital to farmers in the 2nd century BC.

Few tools were more vital than the one actually invented by the Gauls – the scythe. Like the modern combine harvester, it allowed farmers to harvest crops much faster,  leaving them free to do other things, like inventing the wooden barrel. Incredibly, none of the tools on display at this exhibition – hoes, pruning implements, sheers, sickles and ploughs – changed much until the late 18th century. So much for embarrassing ancestors.

what did julius caesar really look like?

The only two known busts of Julius Caesar have gone on display together for the first time in Paris as part of an exhibition of objects found in the Rhône River near the ancient city of Arelate, modern day Arles. For decades the only portrait known to exist of Julius Caesar was a bust found in Tusculum in 1825. Then in the autumn of 2007, Luc Long, director of the Rhône Underwater Archaeology Project, came face to face with the dictator during an archaeological dive. As the bust peered out at him from the murky waters of the Rhône, he recognised it immediately: ‘Mais, c’est César’. Despite initial scepticism – as the Danish historian Flemming Johansen explained during one of the free talks held in the Louvre as part of this exhibition, of the 200 representations of Caesar currently in existence, 90% are modern fakes – comparison with the Tusculum bust, which is kept in the Archaeological Museum in Turin, has left archaeologists in little doubt. Both show him in his fifties, with a  receding hairline, hollow cheeks, a small, slightly drooping mouth and prominent adam’s apple. Founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, Arles is located near the mouth of the Rhône River, 30 km from the Mediterranean, and once stood at the centre of a vast maritime and river trading network that stretched from Spain to modern Turkey and beyond.

Arles, Record of the Rhône. Twenty years of underwater excavations. Muséé du Louvre. 9 March to 25 June 2012.