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Traveler's Taste

Italian chef keeps his Magic meatless in France

Email|Print| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / September 29, 2004

NICE, France -- Marco Folicaldi doesn't fit the vegetarian stereotype. At about 250 pounds, he's not exactly skinny.

"You don't need to eat meat to be strong," said Folicaldi, proprietor of the meat-free Italian restaurant La Zucca Magica (The Magic Pumpkin).

"Animals are precious," he said one Saturday morning as he peeled garlic on the sidewalk terrace. "It's OK to eat them if they're at the end of their natural lives. But hyper-production is crazy." He was referring to factory-farmed chickens, cows, and pigs raised without natural light, air, or grass, and to the overfishing made possible by sonar and satellite technology. "Pork is sold as cheaply as a newspaper," he said. "We don't have respect for them."

As vendors of fresh pasta arrived with their daily deliveries and a cook asked how to prepare a rice dish, Folicaldi put his prep work aside and invited a visitor to join him for breakfast: croissants and strong espresso with dollops of hazelnut ice cream.

Folicaldi chose an off-the-beaten-path location -- Port Lympia, just over the Colline du Château from the beach crowds -- for the restaurant he opened eight years ago, sister to the place he founded in Rome. Folicaldi is Italian, as are lots of Nicois.

"Nice isn't really truly French," he says. "Plus, you can get all the Italian products. Italy is only 20 kilometers [12 miles] away."

Folicaldi's business card states "La Zucca Magica: vegetables, egg and cheese restaurant," but the influence of his native country is evident. He incorporates roasted red and yellow peppers, pan-fried squash concoctions, and vibrant tomato sauces poured over locally made pastas.

"I wanted to show that you can have vegetarian food without worrying about the pleasure," he said. His ethos is also against depleting the planet, so his kitchen is run in tune with the seasons. "No cherries at Christmastime," he said.

The only aspect of his restaurant not in harmony with the calendar is his perpetual Halloween-themed decor: pumpkin posters, lights, and ceramic doodads everywhere. But another trick (or treat) sets La Zucca Magica apart. Diners don't order: A five-course meal magically begins to appear once they're seated at the tables with red-checked cloths.

La Zucca Magica's menu changes daily, and Folicaldi likes to know in advance how many diners he'll have each lunch and dinner. That's why it's good to make a reservation. One evening, he served a chilled cucumber and yogurt soup with an olive-stuffed croissant. A pepper and squash gratin with crispy cheese arrived next, followed by a slice of smoked mozzarella and eggplant parmesan. A tangy and supple ricotta-stuffed cannelloni was the final savory dish before dessert: figs stewed in brandy and served with praline ice cream and a biscuit.

For this self-taught chef, food is theater -- and the script should be unpretentious. "Simplicity, rapidity, everyday food" could be Zucca Magica's mantra. Folicaldi quoted his mother: "The best food is what you make with what you have."

May he be forever blessed with plenty.

La Zucca Magica, 4 bis, quai Papacino, 06300 Nice. 011-33-4-93-56-25-27. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday -- 12:30-2:30 p.m. and 7:30-10:30 p.m. Lunch is $20, dinner $32.50 (without wine).

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