Making a reservation was a necessity. Reserving early was a stroke of genius. When J and I pushed open the door at Le Popine (aka pizza nirvana), the place was deserted and we had our choice of position – window-side table, shared bench or high table with a clear view of the bar and pervy perspective through the pass into the kitchen. We took a place up the back, pushing aside throw cushions to pile up coats and scarves on the banquette.
The menu (delivered swiftly with a branded carafe of Paris’s finest tap) proved a challenge. As J said, why have a gourmet section when the classique pizzas are all artisan prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella? We ordered a 500ml pichet of Chevry and a carciofina (ham, mozzarella and artichoke) for me and something similar (the name escapes me) with added olives and marinated capsicum for J. The tapas, burger and charcuterie were tempting, too, but somewhat tangential to our mission.
I had seen it claimed that Paris’s best pizza came out of wood-fired ovens in the 20th, and so my friends and I have been roadtesting the contenders. Happily, it’s an ongoing quest…
Popine, recommended vigorously by both Le Fooding and Time Out, was second on the must-visit list. First glance, and eager first bite, confirmed the advance notices. The crust was damn near perfect – salty, light, just the right amount of blister and crunch without being dry or brittle, wheaty from artisanal flour in the best possible way – with sparing toppings of quality and flavour. When we finally lifted our heads from flat, round Neapolitan heaven, we realized the room was now packed and buzzing, with a typical Ménilmontant crowd, which is to say young and fashionable.
The crowd at the pizzeria at Mama Shelter is rolled from similar dough. I’ve been a few times, because it’s reliably good and there is usually a spot at one of the two long, skinny tables in the underlit but welcoming space. You enter through the lobby of the hotel, peruse the gift suggestions in the glass cabinets and turn left. (My goal this summer is to be organized enough to make the reservation that will allow me to turn right and step into the elevator up to the popular roof terrace.) There’s a restaurant, too, but usually it’s pizza and a carafe of house red calling my name. No need to be fancy. Mama Shelter is an international chain of affordable, photogenic boutique hotels, styled by French interior designer Philippe Starck. I’m happy they decided to put the Paris one in my neighbourhood.
The service, on this visit as on previous ones, was quick and friendly. C and I clambered onto chunky high stools – I may have crawled under the table to avoid going all the way to the end and squeezing past half-a-dozen fellow diners (Pardon! Excusez-moi! Désolée!) – and ordered a vegetarian for her, Bellota for me. It’s still weird to get a pizza not neatly cleaved into eight, but, hey, if I have to navigate chorizo, tomato, mozzarella and oregano with a knife and fork, so be it. The menu has 10 options and you can add extra toppings. But why mess with something “created with the complicity of three-starred chef Guy Savoy”? The ambient buzz was as noisy as the décor is groovy, and we decided not to stick around for dessert. The helpful waiter packed the leftover pizza into a takeaway box and we headed out, the beginnings of a long night cranking up behind us.
And so, to number three. On a recent Friday, noting with pleasure the lengthening evening (roll on, spring), I installed myself on the closed-in terrace at Tripletta on boulevard de Belleville, ordered a glass of Côtes de Roussillon red and settled in with my university copy of Le Grand Meaulnes to wait for J and M. This restaurant strip, which runs all the way from Père Lachaise cemetary to vintage brasserie La Vielleuse, hosts such a parade of diners, hangers-out, soldiers on patrol, hustlers, pavement smokers, locals with shopping caddies, it feels like the whole eastern city walks past your table, if only you sit long enough.
Tripletta is the compact sister address of bar-bistro Les Triplettes up the road, similarly casual, a bit grittier around the edges, perhaps; there is a constant stream of delivery guys collecting flat boxes for home delivery from the little window on the corner. It’s the kind of place you need for an end-of-week debrief. So it took us a while to get to consulting the menu – and decide on a Napoli (creamy mozza fior di latte, anchovies and black Caiazzan olives) for me and a prosciutto e funghi for J. M was avoiding grains and inducing order envy with a ricotta salad, beefed up with roast vegetables and served in a strangely heavy bowl (“so you think it is more substantial than lettuce leaves,” she said).
All present, correct and satisfying – snaps for the doorstop chunks of good bread (duly lifted and wrapped carefully in napkins for my breakfast) – from beginning until week’s-end fatigue got the better of us.
At Popine, they beat us to it, gently enquiring how long we planned to linger after the last crumbs and swish of wine had been downed. They needed the table. We obliged, of course, rugging up and stepping into that wonderful hum and movement of cars, bodies and possibilities of the boulevard.