Socca is the crêpe of the Mediterranean South

Socca, a chickpea crêpe cooked in a pizza oven, is a simple specialty with a big presence along the Mediterranean

Published October 1, 2022 3:00PM (EDT)

 (James Ransom / Food52)
(James Ransom / Food52)

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The French, by and large, do not eat standing up, though there are a few exceptions to this largely unspoken rule: the quignon of a warm baguette, torn off and consumed as the loaf is transported home. Petit gris snails, which, in Occitanie, are grilled over vinewood, flambéed with lard, skewered on metal picks, and shuttled straight into the mouth, chased with cold rosé. And then there's socca, the three-ingredient chickpea flatbread of Nice, destined to be consumed hot and fresh as you wend your way through a local market.

Unlike wheat-and-egg-based crêpes or buckwheat galettes, which hail from northwestern Brittany, socca begins with a base of chickpea flour, water, and olive oil. Ladled onto an olive oil-greased copper pan as wide as the socca-maker's wingspan will allow, it's baked in a wood-fired oven, emerging crisp on the bottom and as tender as a good Yorkshire pudding within. And according to Niçois culinary historian Alex Benvenuto, it's a specialty best eaten "seasoned heavily with pepper and very hot, and, of course, with the fingers."

"You find people having it as an aperitif," says Benvenuto, who is also the president of Cuisine niçoise, patrimoine de l'humanité, an association that successfully lobbied to classify Nice's local cuisine as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. "But if you want to stay really Niçois, you need to go to Cours Saleya [market] or to a bistro in the Old Town and have it in the street, with a glass of wine."

Chickpea flatbreads like socca are omnipresent in the Mediterranean, with roots that go back thousands of years, according to Benvenuto. One Mesopotamian recipe he unearthed dates to 1700 BC. These days, you'll find farinata or tarta cauda in Liguria, belecauda in southern Piedmont, cade in Toulon, cecina in Tuscany, and calentica in Algeria. While it's simple to trace some origin lines, for example that of cade, which Niçois workers who arrived in Toulon to work in the arsenal in the 19th century, others are blurred.

"I can't say who invented it," says Benvenuto.

It's not pure chauvinism that leads the historian to prefer the local iteration above all others, claiming it's "thinner and crispier than its neighbor, farinata." And he's not the first who thought that socca was worth protecting. Honoring the great French tradition of culinary bureaucracy, in 1940, socca sellers united to form a guild to "defend their professional interests." One of the five original guild members, Joseph Mazzone, sold his socca at 13 rue Bavastro, just steps from the port of Nice. Today, the address is still home to one of the best in the city.

Today, at Chez Pipo, Jean-Antoine Waechter makes about 15 of the 50-centimeter trays per lunch service and 20 every night. With 20 portions per dish, his rapid and constant work is a testament to the dish's popularity.

Current owner Steeve Bernardo worked at Chez Pipo as a student before buying the restaurant in 2009. "We're famous for our socca," he says, noting that while other local specialties like pan bagnat and pissaladière certainly dot the menu, "Chez Pipo's raison d'être is indeed socca."

It's also the centerpiece of the dining room. Before the wood-burning oven, shielded with just a transparent pane of glass, Waechter and his team work in clear view of diners. A special dispenser helps him generously grease the pan before it's transferred to the oven to preheat. The batter is ladled in, and the socca is cooked for a few moments under his close supervision. He uses a paddle to burst any bubbles, brushing the top with even more oil to help it brown. "It's difficult to make at home," says Bernardo. "So the tradition is really to go out for it, to share it with your family or your friends."

And while he says that locals lucky enough to have a country house with a pizza oven can indeed make it, "it's pretty difficult, otherwise."

René Socca has been selling socca since 1961 in the heart of Old Nice from behind a glass-paned counter, where customers line up for portions of not just this specialty but grilled sardines, pizza, and tourte de blettes – a sweet Swiss chard tart particularly popular during the holiday season. Selections can either be enjoyed to go or at one of a handful of tables on the side street adjacent to the restaurant, where the purchase of a drink earns you your spot. Zélie Bonge, who is the daughter and niece of two of the restaurant's managers, agrees that making the specialty at home can be complex without the right material.

"It depends on if you're lucky enough to have a wood-burning stove," she says. "Those who do often make it at home."

And while, she notes, it's simpler to go out, "it's also a moment to create great memories, if you make it at home."

A Niçois resident of nearly 20 years, Canadian Rosa Jackson notes that while she loves buying socca out, she also frequently makes it at home or at her cooking school, Les Petits Farçis.

"We often make socca as a snack in class and serve it when the noon cannon goes off at the top of Castle Hill," she says. "The cannon signals that it is time to start thinking about lunch!"

She has a few tips for those who would try their hand at it in a home kitchen. "It's important to let the batter rest for at least two hours before cooking it, but if you let the batter sit in the refrigerator for between 24 and 48 hours, you will get the very best results," she says.

A pan with good heat conduction is key, too.

"Socca should always be cooked in a metal pan," she says. "The traditional socca pan is made of copper with a tin lining."

But the crucial factor remains the screaming-hot temperature.

"The oven needs to be as hot as you can get it, and you should cook the socca for a little longer than you think it needs," she says. "I find that adding some oil to the batter as well as to the pan also creates the best texture."

Making your own socca is also an interesting way to play with the classic by adding toppings and mix-ins, something that's far from traditional but that Bernardo embraced about five years ago at Chez Pipo.

"It already existed near Genoa," he says, evoking farinata. "There, they vary it all the time. I thought the idea was great, so I duplicated it at my restaurant in Nice." He has since started serving versions embedded with spring onions, marinated peppers, anchovies, and more. An extra oven just for the topping-laden versions helps him to keep up with the demand.

"It's especially popular with foreign clients, because they're naturally attracted to something with an extra ingredient, rather than plain," says Bernardo. "Especially Americans."

Both Bernardo and Waechter cite the Parmigiana, with eggplant, tomato, and parmesan cheese, as their favorite.

"You're much farther from the flavor of the socca, though," Bernardo says. "Since there are more ingredients, you cover up the flavor of the socca."

Indeed, according to Jackson, "purists never serve socca with a dip, but always sprinkle it with finely ground black pepper." It is just this seasoning that Waechter counsels as he slides a fresh plate across the table — for toppings aren't the only way Chez Pipo breaks with tradition. Here, despite local custom, table service has seen the local specialty transition into a sit-down meal.

But whether you eat it standing up or sitting down, topped or plain, the most important thing, according to Benvenuto, is that socca be enjoyed with people you care about.

"It's really only perfect at the market or at a bistro with friends and a glass of red wine," he says. "It can be enjoyed during conversations at the bar, with that mix of aromas of wood fire and spices, drinks and stockfish."

"It's a dish," he says, "that's meant to be shared."


La Socca (care of Alex Benvenuto)

For 2 50-centimeter soccas

  • 250 grams chickpea flour
  • 50 cl water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Put the cold water in a pot. Whisk in the chickpea flour, oil, and a teaspoon of fine salt. Beat until smooth; strain as needed through a chinois to remove any lumps. Pour 2 to 3 mm of batter in a lightly oiled copper pan. Cook in a very hot oven. Enjoy nicely seasoned with pepper and very hot, and, of course, with your fingers.

By Emily Monaco

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Chickpeas Crêpe Food Food52 Mediterranean Recipe Socca