Despairing of ever finding really good Italian food, this tiny little restaurant in a passage off the busy rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine hit me like a thunderbolt. The Caffe dei Cioppi is a tiny space with maybe five table, plus two seats at the counter that allow you to watch the chef at work. In its layout, its sort of like an American diner, but amber lighting gives the space a cosy feel compared to the fluorescent common to that Yankee genre. We went as five and after sharing an excellent bottle of white Sardinian Vermentino as an aperitif, we got busy with the short and very gently priced menu. Everything appealed, though I loved the idea of a frittata (Italian omelette) seasoned with fresh mint and peas, I can never resist freshly made mozzarella, which here came with an almost invisible drizzle of sublime Sardinian olive oil and perfect grilled vegetables--aubergine, baby onions, zucchini and a sun-dried tomato. A superb plate of food, and the only one of us who didn't have the mozarella crowed over his plate of freshly sliced Italian prosciutto and salami. Next, I chose thepolpette (flattened meat balls) with over roasted potatoes seasoned with rosemary and sea salt. Made with bread soaked in milk, grated Parmesan and onion, they were still soft inside, which set up a wonderful contrast with the crunchy potatoes. All of the other dishes I tasted--homemade ravioli filled with ricotta, linguine with a sauce of sea bass and tomatoes, and penne in broccoli sauce, were superb, too. Though desserts are never the high point of an Italian meal, the melted chocolate cake and apple tart here were terrific. My only regret as we went off into the night after a truly fine feed was that this place isn't in my neighborhood. If it was, I would very happily eat there once a day.
"Alec, it couldn't possibly be any good. It's just down the street from the Cafe de Flore in heart of tourist Paris," said my friend from London when we arrived at Le Petit Saint Benoit. She and her husband were in town doing a story for an Australian magazine and had asked me to chose a inexpensive restaurant within walking distance of their hotel. Also a place where they serve on an outdoor terrace if possible, since Pete would walk a mile for a Camel.
The overhead heat lamps on the terrace decided the meal, though, and we settled in with a 5 Euro glass of Champagne and looked at the menu. I vaguely regretted that we weren't eating inside, because the snug old-fashioned dining room reminds of what Paris looked like when I first saw the city in 1972--cracked tile floor, vanilla-colored walls, banquettes, etc. But had we been sitting inside we'd have missed the dramatic performance of the reed-thin Ukrainian model from Berlin at the table in front of us. Dressed all in black, which made her perfect skin look like wax, she was wearing stiletto heels, a belted fur robe of coat, and carrying a big portfolio which she balanced on a chair before firing up the first of a good dozen cigarettes and taking the first of a good dozen calls in at least five different languages. She did give me a good idea, though--she ordered thehachis parmentier, a dish I love and hadn't had for years.
So after a decent plate of marinated leeks, I broke the cheese crust that capped the mound of potatoes and ground beef on my hachis parmentier, dug in, and was quietly surprised by how good it was. Le Petit Benoit is one of Paris's best-known budget restaurants, and though I'd eaten here often enough to hope it might still be half-decent, I hadn't been in a while. The Londoners loved their foie gras and terrine de campagne to start, and then a perfectly cooked bavette with shallot sauce and coq au vin. The cheapest cotes du Rhone was also surprisingly pleasant, and the quality of the trio of cheese we shared at the end of the meal--Roquefort, cabecou and brie--was excellent. The moral of the story? Yes, even in glittery Saint Germain des Pres, you can still find a good Gallic feed for a very fair price.
Caffe dei Cioppi, 159 rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine, 11th, Tel. 01-43-46-10-14. Metro: Ledru-Rollin. Mon-Tues 11.30pm to 7pm, Wed-Fri 11.30pm-10.30pm.
Le Petit Saint Benoit, 4 rue Saint-Benoit, 6th, Tel. 01-42-60-27-92. Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Closed Sunday.