Tucked in France’s Italianate southeastern nook, Nice passes the summer in a floaty haze. In the morning, colorful markets are piled high with fragrant locally grown produce, friendly pétanque matches break out in the afternoon sun, glasses of crisp pale-pink Provençal rosé slip from hand to hand when it’s time for aperitifs. More and more these days, the scenes are accompanied by the warm, fried scent of thyme, rosemary, and olives; that would be panisse, chickpea fritters, which emerge from restaurants and bars by the half dozen.
In a country synonymous with fried potatoes, a chickpea dish might seem an unusual crowd favorite. But the protein-packed legume, “lou cèe” in the Niçois dialect, is the emblematic ingredient of southeastern France. The chickpea’s ability to thrive in the poor, water-deprived soils of the Mediterranean basin has made it a staple in the local diet. And — like nearly every other ingredient — it’s best enjoyed fried, hot, salty, and without an implement in sight.
A simple mix of chickpea flour, water, olive oil, and salt, panisse is typically considered a specialty dish of Marseille — 100 miles west along the coast from Nice — where curbside kiosks like Chez Freddy closely guard secret recipes, and the 19th-century Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral once wrote, “A Marsiho vèdn de panisso” (in Marseille, we sell panisse). But Nice may lay an even deeper claim to the dish than Marseille, says local culinary historian Alex Benvenuto. “Panisse likely originated in Genoa, across the border in Italy’s Liguria, and was adopted and cooked in Nice before passing through the city towards Marseille,” he says.
Today, Nice is reclaiming its position as the place to enjoy panisse, remaking the classic snack into a buzzy trend. “Over the last few years, panisse has transitioned from the street to the table, as the city’s chefs elevate Niçoise cuisine,” says Romain Maksymowycz, a former journalist for Nice-Matin and a longtime observer of the local food scene. You’ll find it on menus at local festivals, hip drinking spots, and the most exciting restaurants, where chefs are adding new ingredients and spins. It’s the snack du jour in one of the most glamorous spots on earth.
What makes panisse so great?
Nice-born chef and writer Kalice Brun explains the region’s street food culture grew out of “strong” ingredients such as chickpeas. “It wasn’t to please visitors. Rather it was to feed the people before they started work,” she explains. Like other local specialities, including pissaladière (a focaccia-style base topped with onions, anchovies, and olives) and pan bagnat (a salad nicoise stuffed into a bread roll), hearty, wholesome panisse keeps hunger at bay.
More recently, panisse has become popular with chefs thanks to its flexibility. “Panisse is a way of making fries without making fries,” says Hugo Loubert, chef and co-owner of laundromat-turned-bistro Lavomatique in Vieux Nice, the city’s warren-like old town. The restaurant’s menu of small plates, which features a veal tongue and kimchi burger, has won a following for turning traditional cooking codes on their head. Panisse’s adaptability makes it an ideal fit for this kind of experimentation. “You can aromatise panisse more than you would a fry made from potatoes,” Loubert says, explaining he seasons his panisse with cumin, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper.
Rosa Jackson, owner of Les Petits Farcis cooking school in Nice and author of upcoming cookbook Niçoise, often makes panisse in place of french fries to accompany dishes such as mussels. “I also find panisse very nice with something that has a sauce like a daube,” she says, referring to the classic Provençal beef stew. While she sticks to the traditional recipe, adding little more than herbs or olives to the mix, Jackson has noticed that “people are playing with [panisse] a little more than they were before.”
At Babel Babel, a bar and restaurant with a front row view across Nice’s sweeping Baie des Anges beachfront, panisse fries are served with a Mediterranean twist. “Our menu is about crossing recipes with other countries and influences so we sprinkle a homemade za’atar with lots of dried marjoram, sumac, and sesame seeds over the fried panisse to add a kick,” explains co-owner Olivier Daniel.
Although panisse is primarily savory, Brun recalls childhood memories of a sweet version served up by her grandmother as a goûter (an after school snack). “She’d sprinkle the fritters with sugar that I’d lick off my fingers,” she says. “When I make panisse today, I’ll add a bit of sugar and cream, which goes very well with the chickpea flour.” Sometimes, she’ll even add sparkling water for “an airy, lighter taste.”
While she’s open to experimenting with the addition of orange blossom water or rose sugar, Brun says there’s one ingredient that is nonnegotiable: oil made from cailletier olives, local to the Alpes-Maritimes and Liguria (where it is known as Taggiasca). “Local olive oil is very important as it has this taste of butter,” she says.
What makes panisse different from other chickpea snacks?
Panisse is a cousin to chickpea-based dishes from around Europe and the world, including fainá in Argentina and Uruguay, karantika in Algeria, and farinata in Italy. It’s especially closely related to socca, the thin chickpea pancake that is considered the traditional street food of Nice; the base recipes for socca and panisse are almost identical, but socca is baked in a woodfire oven on a hot, flat, circular skillet and emerges from the oven millimeters thick. Panisse batter is brought to a boil in a pot, left to set, and then fried in olive oil, providing a stark difference between the firm, golden exterior and soft interior. As Jackson describes it, the best panisse is “crispy on the outside and almost creamy inside.”
Nice’s panisse is also different from the version you’ll find in Marseille. “In Marseille, the batter is usually rolled up in a towel to form a cylinder and then circles are cut and fried from it,” Jackson explains. The batter in Nice is traditionally shaped using a saucer (conveniently at hand in most kitchens), parcooked, and then cut into strips like french fries before frying (you’ll find parcooked rounds behind counters in specialty shops across the city, ready for home cooks to portion into fries as they see fit). “The small fry shape allows for better crispness from the cooking,” says Benvenuto. The flat sides and sharp edges of Nice’s panisse allow it to crisp up more than Marseille’s round version.
Where to try panisse in Nice:
In this cozy, rustic dining room with just 24 seats, chef Dominique Le Stanc serves up Niçoise classics such as soupe au pistou (a summer vegetable soup) and pissaladière. A half moon of panisse accompanies the tripes de veau à la niçoise (veal tripe) or daube de bœuf à la Provençale, perfect to mop up the rich stew sauce. Reservations are essential, but there’s no telephone, so try reserving through social media.
4, rue Raoul Bosio, 06300 Nice
With a bar list that leans towards natural wines from small producers and little-known grape varieties, as well as inventive cocktails made with ingredients such as olive oil fat-washed gin, it’s little surprise that Babel Babel’s za’atar-dusted panisse is a little out of the ordinary as well. The fries are served by the half dozen, though you’ll probably end up ordering multiple rounds.
2 Cr Jacques Chirac, 06300 Nice
Originally from Normandy, chef Loubert only learned about panisse when he moved south. The dish first appeared on the menu just after the restaurant’s 2018 opening, and it has since become a favorite with both local diners and visitors to the city.
11 rue du Pont Vieux, 06300 Nice
The unveiling of a cool, graffiti-style mural of a woman in traditional Niçois dress and colors (red and black) heralded the arrival of D’aqui and its Maralpine finger food (from the Alpes-Maritimes region). Snack on panisse served up by the dozen, au naturel or seasoned with Parmesan, or go all in for the panisse burger: two discs of panisse acting as buns for beef, a vegan patty, or a veggie omelet. Wash it down with a local craft brew.
28 rue Cassini, 06300 Nice
This Vieux Nice institution, set back from the fragrant Cours Saleya produce markets, has been making fresh pasta specialities such as daube-filled ravioli since 1892. Here, panisse is sold parcooked in the traditional saucer shape. Pick up a few to cook at home or in your holiday rental kitchen. (Maison Barale also supplies La Merenda with panisse.)
7 rue Sainte-Réparate, 06300 Nice
For a side of pétanque with your panisse, this drinking spot in Nice’s trendy Le Port neighborhood should top your list. Set inside an old warehouse, the bar sports an open-air layout that provides plenty of space. On a menu of meze-style sharing plates, finger-licking-good wedges of panisse, served with lashings of fresh salt and pepper, are right at home.
16, Rue Lascaris, 06300 Nice