It’s twilight in the Levinsky neighborhood. We sit at the counter of Hahalutzim Shalosh, a recently opened wine bar-bistro, and look out at the street. On the balcony opposite are a man and a woman separated by a divider. Some unknown hand − the one that split a tiny second-floor apartment into two or three smaller units and rented them out to African migrant workers − has put up a sheet of canvas in the middle of the balcony. The man and the woman standing on either side can see each other’s heads, but not the rest of their bodies, and are immersed in a lively conversation. Romeo and Juliet − the 2012 south Tel Aviv version.

“This scene takes place every day,” says Eitan Vanunu, owner and chef of the new eatery.

“Those two return from a day of work, each to their own apartment, and meet toward evening on either side of the balcony,” adds Naama Sternlicht, his partner in life and in the new bistro. “She hangs out laundry and he talks, or they just stand and talk, but they don’t miss a single day, and they’re always completely focused on one another, as though there’s nobody else in the world.”

The couple whose new establishment faces this romantic balcony first met in the kitchen of a bar-restaurant in Jaffa. On their first date they prepared bacon together. They went out to enjoy themselves at the Carmel market, drunk with the joy of their initial encounter, bought a pork belly from the Russian butcher, and with the raw chunk of meat marbled with white fat, rushed home to smoke their own pork chops.

A stranger might not understand their love of meat or the romantic nature of a butcher shop, but in the world of foodies this story is accepted as is: A man meets a woman, both have a passion for food, and since then their days and nights have been devoted to joint culinary expeditions. These journeys of discovery take place in Israel and all over the world, among the pages of books and in their own home kitchen. The couple wanders among restaurants and food producers, tastes wine, examines new and interesting ingredients, and tries to prepare a large proportion of basic foods by themselves, as people once used to do. For ideological and environmental reasons, but mainly because it’s tastier that way.

Two months before the start of the present grape harvest, the two traveled to the vineyards of Uri Hetz in the Golan Heights to prepare verjus with him ‏(this juice from unripe green grapes was once used as a substitute for vinegar or lemon, but has been forgotten‏). During the previous olive harvest they picked their own olives for home pickling; and throughout the year they prepare fresh pasta, sausages, frankfurters and salted fish at home.

Food arts

Naama Sternlicht, 29, was born on Kibbutz Gaash and grew up in Ra’anana. After her army service she moved to Tel Aviv and began to study economics and accounting at the university.

“When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I said to myself there was no way I would work at that,” she says. “During and before my studies I worked as a waitress at Mika and Catit. There, especially in the kitchen of Meir Adoni, who was a bundle of energy and knowledge, I discovered an entire world of raw ingredients, food and wine. I couldn’t picture myself moving to a world composed entirely of accounting. I decided to take time out and travel for a year to study in Italy at the University [of Gastronomic Sciences], which belongs to the slow-food movement.

“That was an unforgettable year. A year of lessons on subjects like globalization and organic farming, of courses in tasting and smelling, and of visits to parts of the country that became famous thanks to their traditional local foods. At the end of the year everyone could choose where to do a two-month internship, and I chose to work at the wine guide of the slow-food movement and get to know people from small and family wineries.”

After her internship, Sternlicht spent another month and a half at a pig farm in Scotland, where she learned about cutting meat and preparing delicacies. When she returned to Israel, “I didn’t know whether I wanted a rural life on an organic farm, or an urban life. I lived with my parents a little, with friends a little, and in the end I found myself in a wonderful Jaffa community of graffiti artists and temporary tenants. I worked for a few minutes at the Margoza bakery, took odd jobs here and there and ended up in the kitchen of the Shafa Bar, where I met Eitan. That was, basically, on his last day at work.”

Eitan Vanunu, 36, was born in Omer and spent a considerable part of his childhood in Africa, in Burkina Faso and Cameroon, where his father worked as an agronomist for the United Nations. After his army service he traveled the world, lived for two years in New York and for two years in London, where he studied cinema ‏(“It was wonderful, but at a certain point I felt I was not an Englishman and decided to return to Israel”‏).

In Israel Vanunu began to study plastic arts and cinema at the Midrasha School of Art in Beit Berl.

“During all my years of wandering and studying, I flirted with the kitchen. Here I worked in the kitchen of a hostel or a restaurant, there I took a pastry course, but I didn’t devote myself to it entirely,” he recalls. “And then a friend told me about a new place in the Carmel market called HaBasta. I entered the kitchen of Itay Hargil and Maoz Alonim, and that was the beginning of a process of leaving the field of plastic arts and cinema. I realized that my art would be related to food.

“I’m an autodidact when it comes to cooking. I’ve never attended a cooking school formally; instead I go to the market, buy raw ingredients and try to make the things by myself. When I didn’t understand how to make halvah, I spent weeks in the kitchen until I succeeded in making something that satisfied me.

The same thing happened with mini-sausages and corned beef. After two years at HaBasta I wanted to learn more and went to manage the Shafa Bar, where I learned to work with suppliers and a staff, and that’s where I met Naama.”

Little Tel Aviv, writ large

In the 1920s and ’30s the only serious market operating in Tel Aviv was the one in the Levinsky quarter. It was the first market in the new Hebrew city, larger and more important than the small, negligible Carmel market. The alleys of the streets bordering on the market were full of retail and wholesale food stores, butcher shops, restaurants and pubs where locals drank arak and beer. This was a world of new immigrants from the Balkans − Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria − and from Germany and Yemen.

In the late 1940s the market was closed due to poor sanitation, and the good years turned into bad ones in Levinsky.

Afterward came better times. Toward the end of the last century the stores selling delicacies, spices and nuts returned − including the ones piled high with chunks of cheese, pickled vegetables, coffee beans and sacks of beans in front − and won shoppers’ hearts. And at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century new places to eat and drink have been opening in Levinsky and trying to restore the simple charm of the past.

“I love this neighborhood,” says Vanunu, who has also lived there for the past seven years. “If there’s anything left of the spirit of Little Tel Aviv, it can be found here, among the businesses and workshops of craftsmen and merchants, who are the second and third generation in their fields of expertise. Nobody is trying to pretend that we’re London or New York − and there aren’t any branches of chain stores here − and yet there’s a multiculturalism and variety that are characteristic of really big cities.”

In the past six months Naama and Eitan renovated the new place they opened, in the former premises of a wholesale warehouse on Hahalutzim Street, with their own hands. They cleaned away vestiges of the past, repaired the iron beams in the gallery, white-washed, bought charming old furnishings, planted a small spice garden in the courtyard they share with an old-style pub, which is frequented by taxi drivers and veteran residents, and opened the wine bar-bistro for a trial run. There are no investors, only young customers who love food with a passion. There is seating for 30, a relaxed, homey atmosphere, and prices designed for people like the owners − people who don’t have much money and still want to enjoy the pleasures of the world. Eitan is in the kitchen, Naama at the bar and in charge of the wine list, and the entire place revolves around their personalities.

Twilight in Levinsky. We’re at the counter of Hahalutzim Shalosh, looking out at the street and drinking a Campari cocktail prepared by Naama. Only real lovers − people seeking perfection in simplicity, who are gifted with good and patient hands − can prepare such a perfect concoction: a precise balance between Campari and soda, with a hint of fresh spearmint and lime. Alongside the Campari are two saucers, one with prickly-sweet flakes of Parmesan cheese − a nice gesture for cooks who usually slice off pieces from a chunk of cheese − and the second with bitter olives. Then comes garlic toast with pickled mussels, served with green leaves and dripping with olive oil and desire, and lentil-and-yogurt salad with tomatoes, herbs and wonderful homemade pickled lemons.

The limited wine menu, meticulously chosen, includes Italian and French wines in a reasonable price range, with a clear preference for the cheaper vintages. You order a glass of wine from the Rhone Valley, and enjoy it with fresh black pasta with asparagus and a raw egg yolk. The limited and changing daily menu also offers dishes such as thin slices of pickled tongue with Italian-style capers and scallions, an open corned beef sandwich, and a tasty dessert based on tapioca, a reduced verjus syrup and sugared passion fruit.

Hahalutzim Shalosh, 3 Hahalutzim St., Tel Aviv,
03-5231016