Time has been good to Café Italia. Eight years ago, it looked like a brasserie with a modern New York vibe that aroused undue expectations. Now, especially during daytime hours, it feels like an upgraded kibbutz dining hall with a pile of plates on each table, customers’ coats on hooks at the entrance and the logo imprinted on every cup and saucer. The east Tel Aviv restaurant, which for years was the subject of complaints about its pretentiousness, and high, not entirely justified prices, suddenly seems accessible.
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The lunch menu, which offers a basic business meal at an attractive price of 69 shekels ($17.60), plays an important part in that. Not only is the deal financially attractive, it also puts everything in the right perspective. Because despite the pretensions and image, Café Italia serves the simple food of an Italian workers’ café, or a trattoria.
They really excel at this style, which is commonplace everywhere and yet so lacking in Israel. Look elsewhere for pyrotechnics. That’s why, along with the critics, this restaurant also attracts a loyal clientele of regulars. The elderly man who sat down next to us and ate alone was one of them. He didn’t need a menu; for him, the waitress was basically an intermediary for sending precise instructions to the kitchen. He knew what he wanted, and exactly what he would get. If he’d arrived just a few minutes earlier, maybe our meal would have been perfect, too.
The business menu includes a first course and main course. The first courses include soup, three salads and eggplant (bruschetta or salmon tartare are available for an additional 12 shekels). The main course includes scaloppine (thin slices of meat), chicken and five types of pasta. Additional mains (lasagna, fish fillet, and others) cost an extra 8 to 22 shekels.
We began with two basic starters: minestrone soup and eggplant with Parmesan. While we were ordering, the waitress asked a kind of rhetorical question: “I’ll bring you our focaccia too, okay?” Focaccia didn’t appear on the business menu, so it wasn’t entirely clear whether we would be charged for it. But you don’t answer rhetorical questions, so all we could do was nod and wait for the bill (spoiler alert: 16 shekels). The minestrone was rich, with a lot of ingredients (chickpeas, peas, beans, mushrooms, parsley, Parmesan; we opted not to have pasta in the soup), but the stock was slightly watery.
A grating experience
We asked for extra Parmesan in an attempt to enliven it, which triggered a somewhat awkward ceremony. Just a thought, but maybe the time has come to stop leaning over the heads of customers and grating cheese? Bring us a small plate with Parmesan and we’ll take it from there. That would spare both sides’ embarrassment and prevent the need to clean up those cheese flakes that fly in unwanted directions. In any case, as always the Parmesan did the job and upgraded the soup significantly.
Cold portions of eggplant may not be to all tastes, but Café Italia’s meticulously prepared eggplant isn’t just something only lovers of the purple vegetable will enjoy. Meaty slices of eggplant, very soft and with a minimum of peel, were covered with fresh tomato cubes and generous amounts of olive oil and Parmesan (there was no need to ask for extra cheese here, so we were spared the awkwardness).
The focaccia turned out to be a welcome addition (sure, it’s annoying to pay for bread, but in light of the reasonable meal prices, it’s tolerable). Firstly, this is probably the largest portion of focaccia in Israel and there was no need to ask for extra dough in order to find the meal filling – the generous meal portions at Café Italia could certainly not be described as modest. The thick, classic focaccia of Italian restaurants, in other words, but without the seasoning and saltiness of the local versions, which made it a perfect absorber of flavors. We couldn’t stop dipping it into the soup and oily sauce that was left on the eggplant plate.
Lasagna bolognese, which arrived as the main course, was our most exciting choice. It’s not a particularly aesthetic dish: it arrived looking like a doughy paste, but with the first taste the look was forgotten and the essence remained. Enjoyable and sinful layers of juicy veal ragout, excellent béchamel sauce and homemade sheets of lasagna, on a base of spinach, which added a greenish color and another flavor. The lasagna of an Italian workers’ café, which makes most of the bland versions of it in Israel look like pale imitations.
However, we do have a small complaint: the temperature. The lasagna arrived hot, but not steaming. The nice guy seated next to us turned out to be a man of experience. “Tell them to bring it piping hot. Not hot, piping hot.” He knew that a few degrees can make the difference between an excellent lasagna and a perfect one.
The other main dish, squash fettuccine, was good, all things considered, but it had difficulty competing with the lasagna. Skillfully made strips of al dente pasta, with cubes of squash grilled in spearmint (quite dominant and a controversial choice), a little chili and Parmesan. A good, fresh, green dish.
Café Italia’s famous tiramisu remains a simple and wonderful dessert. Without anyone noticing, our restaurants have stopped serving proper tiramisu, offering instead only various and sundry adaptations. The tiramisu of Café Italia reminds us that the original, when made well, is better than any of them, even if it lacks sophistication and, like the lasagna, is not served in a particularly aesthetic manner. Excellent ladyfingers, mixed with a goodly but not exaggerated quantity of espresso and alcohol, and wrapped in an addictive mixture of whipped cream, mascarpone and high-quality cocoa powder. Simple. Wonderful.
A lot of waitresses visited us during the meal, but the cutlery disappeared just when we needed it too and somehow this organized chaos works. Indeed, it even creates a pleasant experience.
And what about value for money? Despite the supplements for bread and some of the main dishes, you can eat a satisfying, enjoyable lunch at Café Italia for less than 100 shekels per head. Of course, you’ll pay far less in a workers’ café in Italy, but in Israel it’s considered a good price for a business lunch.
Our meal came to 241 shekels, for minestrone soup (included in the price of the main course); eggplant (included in the price of the main course); squash fettuccini – 69 shekels; lasagna – 81 shekels; focaccia – 16 shekels; tiramisu – 44 shekels; tip – 31 shekels. Perfect for anyone who’s ever wondered what an Italian kibbutz’s cuisine would taste like.