It feels almost odd to write this, but the big Tel Aviv trend of recent months is pizza. Yes, pizza. After looking to Mexico for inspiration, trying to reinvent the sandwich and going a bit overboard with the hamburger craze, we’ve returned to the bedrock of our existence from the Nineties: the Ninja Turtles’ favorite food (just about everyone’s favorite, really – which seems to be exactly the point).
Tel Aviv is now awash in new pizzerias, running the gamut from old-fashioned neighborhood joints to more modern versions, but two stand out above all the rest: Beta’am and Da Peppe. Each with its own story and the individual behind it, each with its own buzz among local foodies, each vying to be the sole claimant of the unofficial title “the best pizza in Tel Aviv.” That last bit is why we’re here.
Beta’am opened three months ago at the corner of Herzl and Lilienblum streets, in the former location of Beta Pizza, which was a popular spot for over a decade. Like its competitor, Beta’am also straddles the line between pizza joint and restaurant. It has a very casual vibe, but it’s a sit-down eatery where the pizza is eaten on a plate; it’s more expensive than a quick slice you just grab somewhere, but still reasonably priced; it projects simplicity, but the man behind it, Eran Shroitman (of Orca fame), is quite an ambitious chef.
We passed up the other menu options (salads, sauceless pizzettas that are more like lahmacun) and went straight for the real thing. The pizzas here are baked in a large brick oven, and most of the toppings are sautéed on a flattop grill and only added at the final stage. We ordered pizzas with cauliflower and kashkaval (NIS 42), mergez sausage (NIS 46) and seafood (NIS 52).
Looking for that nostalgic experience known as a “family-size pizza”? You won’t find it here. The pizzas are not wide in diameter, but they are rich enough that two of them will satisfy three diners. Use this rule of thumb and you can sample several kinds and end up feeling well-sated.
The pizza dough was wonderful. Not massive but not too thin either. Just the right thickness to be able to handle all the toppings, without fear of a sudden messy avalanche leaving you holding nothing but dough in your hand, as is the case in some other local pizzerias that have taken the thin crust concept to undue extremes.
Out of the pizzas we sampled, the favorite was seemingly the simplest – the one with the cauliflower. It superbly combined a somewhat spicy but slightly sweet tomato sauce with the sharp kashkaval cheese, interspersed with tiny cauliflower slices. So simple, so delicious.
Our feelings about the other two, with the mergez slices and the seafood mixture, were more complicated – just like the pizzas themselves. The mergez sausages, known for their dominant flavor, lay on the pizza beside green and red peppers and a little cilantro. The result wasn’t bad, but the pizza itself – the sauce, the cheese – got lost underneath. This was even more true with the seafood pizza, where aside from quite a generous amount of calamari and shrimp, the pizza was also topped with zucchini, goat cheese and a few slices of pancetta. We could have done without the latter three – and the pizza would actually have been better for it. It would have let the seafood shine through rather than be caught in the midst of too many different flavors. It was tasty, but
Meanwhile, in north Tel Aviv, pizzaiolo Giuseppe Giordano is making a comeback. Four years ago he opened Da Peppe on Ibn Gvirol Street. It was a nice little place that stayed in business for about two years, until Giordano couldn’t deal with all the bureaucracy, the local authorities and the suppliers anymore, and closed up shop. Now he’s back: A few weeks ago he opened his new place at the spot where Dizengoff ends and the Tel Aviv Port begins. It has wooden furniture, cheery Italian music, and if not for the angry honking from the eternal traffic jam at the intersection, you might easily think you were in some little town in Italy (I’m really restraining myself from using the word “picturesque” here).
As at Beta’am, the menu is limited and centered on pizza (although there are also salads, appetizers and two types of lasagna on offer). When we saw the name of one of the appetizers, we couldn’t resist – The “garlic nuts” are balls of dough baked in a garlic, parmesan and olive oil sauce (NIS 18). Fortunately, you can’t go wrong with that combination of ingredients. Unfortunately, they were totally addictive.
Here, too, one pizza is the right size for either one hungry person or for a couple that likes to share. From the pizza menu we selected the salsiccia e funghi and the rucola e limone. The thing about Da Peppe’s dough is that it’s quite deceiving – At first glance it looks a bit too thick, but as in the Neopolitan style, the first bite reveals a perfectly airy texture.
But it’s what happens atop this dough – a juicy and very flavorful tomato sauce, and a meaty mozzarella that absorbs everything around it without losing its own presence – that perfectly complements it and makes Da Peppe’s pizza so wonderful. The rucola pizza (NIS 46) will really satisfy those who like greens, with its hefty amount of leaves and a lemon twist that makes this pizza delightfully refreshing. Its companion on our table, with the mushrooms and slices of Italian salsiccia sausage (NIS 54) was equally successful. The very spicy meat was felt to be just the right degree and didn’t completely overpower things. These were two supposedly standard pizzas that easily surpassed every other local standard.
We left Da Peppe feeling very happy and satisfied. They don’t do any special magic there, they’re not trying to be sophisticated or reinvent anything. They just make pizza – the best in Tel Aviv, evidently.