Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999

1999 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Dīner ("dee-nay", not "dye-nurr") #2: Go East - to Italy

by Jim Byerley

Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999 is brought to you by:

Cannes, May 12, 1999

A few years back, intrepid friends and I established the "Italy For Lunch Bunch." Needing a break from the Cannes Festival hoopla, we decided to take a Sunday off and drive to Italy. It has become a yearly event to be savored and enjoyed. One can still schedule a 10 am screening and make it across the border for a 1 o'clock colazione. There are several marvelous places near Ventimiglia, which is just an hour from the Palais via the AutoRoute. Cannes does have some Italian dining spots (like Le Pizza and Scala at the Noga Hilton), but when we're this close why not go for the real thing?

One of the best meals to be in this vicinity is just barely across the border from Menton. The remnants of the old customs check points, now unmanned, still stand. Using the ocean road, make a right turn immediately upon arrival on Italian soil, and before the short tunnel. There you will encounter the extraordinary Balzi Rossi. A very serious place, it certainly doesn't look like much from the outside. What's an elegant establishment like Balzi Rossi doing in a place like this? A panoramic terrace which supports outdoor dining on sunny summer days looks delightful, though it was not in use the day I stopped by. It provides staggering coastal views past Menton to Cap Martin. The interior is discreet, very "Italian" in decor and the linens are of the finest quality. The pleasant staff was agreeable to speaking French, English, Italian or any combination thereof. I'm sure they could make do in Japanese if need be. It's that kind of place.

There is an expensive prix fixe lunch for 90, 000 Lira which included a simple, but tasty, local Ligurian white wine. The starter was a sensational, and heavenly light, grated zucchini tart. A tender shrimp was to be discovered at its center and a puddle of carrot-colored (and flavored) sauce puddled nearby. For the second course there was a choice between an assertively-flavored rabbit terrine (served with warm onion marmalade and green salad) or a lasagna from Ligurian heaven. The pasta was stuffed with potatoes and green beans and was awash in an aromatic, basil-pesto sauce. The main course consisted of a juicy piece of herb-crusted salmon, accompanied by a carrot flan and a zucchini flower fried up tempura-style. Slightly oily was the latter, but still good. Dessert of the day was a winner too. Panna cotta (literally "cooked cream"), coated with coffee-flavored sauce, was sided by a scoop of vanilla gelato, with its very own chocolate sauce. A thick ribbon of molded dark chocolate tied things together, completing the picture.

Balzi Rossi (named for the red cliffs on which it sits is a premiere destination if you want a quick hit of Italy. Nearby is the stunning Hanbury Botanical Gardens. It is planted with an amazing assortment of exotic plants and was established by Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1867. A large villa sits at the center of the gardens and well-marked paths provide a scenic climb up and down the hillside. The perfect exercise to work off that rich Balzi Rossi lunch. The two in combination will be known, hereafter, as the Hanbury Diet.

Just a bit further on towards Ventimiglia, is the charming Baia Beniamin. Down a series of steps, it sits alongside the ocean and also provides a few rooms. A very romantic spot, rich with flowers, it is best experienced on a warm sunny day when outdoor dining is possible. It was mysteriously closed on the Saturday afternoon I drove past, so one should check its hours. A bit further into Italy, but still convenient to Cannes, is Giappun in the small seaside resort of Vallecrosia. It is located between Ventimiglia and Bordighera and only 26 kilometers beyond Monte Carlo. It specializes in seafood and a specialty is shrimp with a puree of white beans. Michelin has recently awarded this more casual place a *, but, despite its name, don't go expecting California Roll. If you have the time to make it as far as San Remo, there is a delightful restaurant in the middle of town. The tiny place is called Paolo and Barbara. Barbara runs the dining room which only accommodates a few tables, while Paolo handles kitchen duties. His cuisine is most inventive and the dining experience will be like no other you have experienced in Italy or elsewhere. A tad further on past San Remo is the well-regarded La Conchiglia on the seaside in Arma di Taggia, only 25 kilometers beyond Ventimiglia. If you stay on the AutoRoute all the way from Cannes to Arma di Taggia, the travel time is minimal. Fish dishes in the Ligurian style, are, of course, the focus. It also rates a star from the picky Michelin man. A high-quality lunch is a reasonable 45,000 Lira, prix fixe, except on Saturdays and Sundays, when the price of fish goes up. Buon appetito and buon viaggio.

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