The 1980s gave lasagna a bad name in Israel. They were a time of heavy bechamel sauce and cream cheese and overcooked pasta. But this dark period of our culinary history aside, lasagna has a proud tradition as a masterpiece of Italian cuisine.
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Surprisingly, the word “lasagna” comes from ancient Greece. Its original meaning was a baking pan or bowl. The Romans borrowed the implement from the Greeks, and in their hands, lasagna became a layered dish of pasta and various fillings. Although it looks easy to prepare, good lasagna has at least three components that must be precisely executed. First, it has to have the right amount of sauce – too little and it’s dry, too much and it’s a lumpy stew. Next, the sheets of pasta have to be properly cooked, and the bechamel sauce (if included) has to be just the right thickness and flavor. Finally, the top layer has to be crispy. When all these components come together, you have lasagna worthy of its name.
The expansion of the Roman Empire gave lasagna to the world. In each location, the dish received a slightly different interpretation, mainly in the fillings. The classic version was prepared with ground beef, cheese and tomato sauce between the layers of pasta, with sticky mozzarella cheese on top. But there’s no limit to what can be put into lasagna, as the following list illustrates.
1) The city’s secret: Lasagna vaccinara at Sola
Hidden at the edge of Jaffa’s Flea market – but with a huge dimly lit interior featuring tall stone arches – Sola is the closest thing to a secret you’ll find in Tel Aviv. Michal Berman, the owner, spent quite a bit of time searching for a place to open her “trattoria,” or casual Italian dining establishment. She eventually found an abandoned factory building, and transformed it into a food and wine bar that does classic interpretations of northern Italian dishes.
The dish: Lasagna vaccinara. Sola’s lasagna was born of Berman’s love for slow cooking. In a way, it is her answer to all the oxtail tortellini dishes flooding the city. Here, the oxtail is slow-cooked with root vegetables and a few other secret ingredients. The meat is then stripped from the bone, and generous-sized pieces are placed between the pasta sheets (which are fresh, of course) with Parmesan cheese and bechamel sauce that have been nicely browned. Everything is just right: the fresh lasagna sheets, the amount of meat and the rich, excellent spicing. This lasagna is a serious contender for the crown of the best lasagna in Tel Aviv. No exaggeration.
The price: NIS 68.
Something good to start with: fried polenta funghi with king oyster and shiitake mushrooms stir-fried in lemon and garlic. Wow.
Sola, 3 Beit Ha’eshel Street, Jaffa.
2) For lovers of simplicity: stone-oven-baked lasagna at Cafe 48
Cafe 48 will soon be marking its second anniversary. Although it hasn’t been open long, several dishes on its menu have already entered the pantheon of Tel Aviv’s best. The credit for this goes to Chef Jonathan Borowitz, who succeeded in creating an urban bistro that is unusual without being overly sophisticated. Add to that friendly service, an outstanding bar and sane pricing, and you get one of Tel Aviv’s nicest spots.
The dish: lasagna baked in a stone oven. This dish seems to be Borowitz’s tribute to home. No, he’s not Italian. It’s just that the dish – prepared with tomato sauce, kashkaval cheese, a bit of bechamel sauce and nothing else – seems to harken back to a simpler time. Because the dish is baked in a stone oven, the bottom layer comes out caramelized, which makes it crispy and crunchy. It’s also delightfully light. Everything is done delicately, from the sauce, which is made with fresh tomatoes and plenty of garlic; to the bechamel, which has just the right texture, to the cheeses, which are carefully blended. The bottom line: Borowitz took a potentially banal dish and tweaked it to the tiniest detail, making it absolutely fantastic.
The price: NIS 52.
Something good to start with: a short-ribs sandwich, of course. Once you’ve had it, you may never want to taste another sandwich. Ever.
Cafe 48, 48 Nahalat Binyamin Street, Tel Aviv
3) White gold: Lasagna bianca at Oasis
Oasis, owned by Chef Rima Olvera, is one of the most talked-about restaurants to open in Tel Aviv this year. Some says its seasonal menu, which changes every few weeks according to the available ingredients, is too ambitious or even a little pretentious. But there is no doubt that Olvera is onto something with her visions of a small, unique and innovative culinary oasis in the desert.
The dish: lasagna bianca. This is a well-thought out dish with ingredients you don’t just find lying around, especially in lasagna. As the name suggests, it doesn’t use tomato sauce, which is a nice change of pace. Olvera layers fresh pasta sheets – made of an extraordinary looking and tasting dough filled with porcini powder – in her stone baking pan, and fills them with roasted oyster mushrooms and a duxelles made with shiitake, champignon, classic porcini and dried porcini mushrooms. Every layer gets its own helping of ricotta and mozzarella cheese and béchamel sauce. When the dish comes out of the oven, heavy and smelling like baked mushrooms, it’s topped with Parmesan cheese. It’s served with a lettuce salad with plenty of lemon and olive oil. There’s definitely enough to share. Bottom line: how long has it been since someone put this much effort into pleasing you?
The price: NIS 89, and worth every shekel.
Something good to start with: Rima Olvera’s famous zucchini salad will refresh your palate and get the meal started off right. Yes, this really is an oasis in the desert.
Oasis, 1 Tchernichovsky Street, Tel Aviv
4) A taste of Sicily: chestnut and mushroom lasagna at Olivery
Olivery is a Sicilian friend of the restaurant’s two owners, who worked for years to persuade them to visit Sicily and taste its famous pizza. When the owners finally made the trip, they fell in love with the place and its recipes, and later named their restaurant after Olivery. Although the restaurant is a tribute to Sicily, it pushes the borders of the local cuisine. One of its most prominent features is a “tabun,” or “stone oven,” which is used not only for pizza but also for desserts and lasagna.
The dish: chestnut and mushroom lasagna. Whatever you have going on this winter, you’ll regret not making time to try this dish at least once. It’s the most unique and delicious winter interpretation of lasagna you’re likely to find. Get ready for four layers of egg-white pasta, each containing a lovely combination of chestnuts and Portobello and champignon mushrooms. The bechamel and mozzarella cheese you might expect are replaced by a porcini cream sauce. And, of course, it’s all baked in the oven. Bottom line: the chestnuts and the mushrooms make the dish, and give it a warm, welcoming aroma. Although it’s a rich wintertime dish, it’s lighter than you might expect. In a perfect world, you’d warm up with this lasagna every day until summer.
The price: NIS 69.
Something good to start with: gnocchi filled with Jerusalem artichokes and truffles. If you’re going for a winter dish, go all the way.
Olivery, 137 Ibn Gabirol Street, Tel Aviv
5) A great deal: cheese and spinach lasagna at Pizza Pazza
After finishing his compulsory army service, Shlomi Salomon followed his wife Susanna, a native of Rome, to Italy to study cooking. When they returned 23 years ago, Salomon established Pizza Pazza, which has since become a respected institution on Ibn Gabirol Street, not only because of the pizza and pasta, but also because it employs people with special needs. Pizza Pazza’s guiding principle has always been good, high-quality Italian food that is affordable and fast. And so it remains. Years later, Salomon established the Amore Mio restaurant near Pizza Pazza for people who wanted to enjoy his special dishes in a different atmosphere.
The dish: spinach and cheese lasagna. Pizza Pazza’s lasagna will knock you for a loop. The price suggests a meager portion, but even the smallest size on offer is more than you need. There are lots of layers (if you can hold off on eating it, you can try counting past eight), each one packed with spinach, salty cheese, a bit of cream and mozzarella (if you don’t care for spinach, there’s also the classic lasagna with tomato sauce and beef). If you like lasagna, are short on time and don’t want to drain your wallet, Pizza Pazza’s lasagna is the best dinner deal in town. If it has a fault, it’s that it could be a bit crispier. Bottom line: Tel Aviv needs more places like this.
The price: NIS 29.
Something good to start with: the ground beef calzone with stir-fried onions – an explosion of carbs for just NIS 20.
Pizza Pazza, 20 Ibn Gabirol Street, Tel Aviv
More not-to-be-missed lasagna
Il Pastaio: This is a longstanding Italian institution that hasn’t followed the crowd, and so isn’t known as well as it should be. That’s a shame because it’s definitely for the cognoscenti. Two kinds of lasagna are on the menu: the classic Bolognese and the Genovese. The latter (NIS 69) has the edge. It has lots of layers (somewhere between eight and ten), and though it seems small, it completely exemplifies the Italian spirit, asserting that in lasagna too, the pasta is more important than the filling. Speaking of the filling, the lasagna Genovese’s pesto and bechamel sauce is as good as it gets. Check it out.
Il Pastaio – 27 Ibn Gabirol Street, Tel Aviv
Cafe Marco: Many locals have passed by the intersection of Gordon and Dizengoff Streets countless times without realizing that Cafe Marco is hiding one of the best lasagnas in town. That may not be so surprising since the owner, Marco, is an Italian from Rome who established a hotel above the restaurant seven years ago. The menu has several kinds of lasagna, but it’s worth dropping everything on a day when lasagna Bolognese with meat (NIS 72), is on the menu. The dish is scrumptious – cooked with root vegetables, wine and ground shoulder roast. The twist that makes the dish even better is the chopped chicken liver with nutmeg. The result is lasagna with a rural, rich and daring flavor. Served with a refreshing side salad.
Cafe Marco, 39 Gordon Street, Tel Aviv
Cafe Italia: This Italian restaurant offers lasagna Bolognese as well (NIS 64). But here, the dish goes a bit off the beaten path. It starts with sheets of green pasta, thanks to the spinach that’s added to the dough. The sheets are thicker than usual, and the meat used is a slow-cooked cut from the neck, which is softened up by the béchamel sauce. The Bolognese sauce plays something of a supporting role, but it plays it very well. The portion is generous, very rich with sauce and deliciously crispy at the edges. Two can share it easily.
Cafe Italia, 6 Kremenetsky Street, Tel Aviv
La Lasagna: This restaurant, which serves eight kinds of lasagna, is one of the only places that has gluten-free options. The mushroom lasagna (NIS 59), which is served in a clay oval dish and surrounded with a lot of sauce, is one of the best. Between the layers (which are made from dry pasta) are fresh mushrooms and a great deal of tasty sauce. There is arguably even a tad too much sauce, but that won’t prevent you from finishing it all.
La Lasagna, 177 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv
Ernesto: Honestly, Ernesto looks a little like a 1980s-style tourist trap. But its prices are affordable and its abundant food has gained a loyal following. At NIS 49 for lasagna with an appetizer and a drink, the business lunch is a great deal. The menu offers two kinds of lasagna, the better of which is made with finely ground beef. Be warned, Ernesto’s lasagna is pretty massive, mainly because of the creaminess, generous amount of bechamel sauce and thick pasta sheets (which suffer a bit from overcooking). It’s tasty, but not life changing.
Ernesto, 90 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv
The best lasagna outside Tel Aviv
Focaccia Bar: Don’t be fooled by the name. This is much more than a place to get delicious focaccia in Jerusalem. At Focaccia Bar, you can find great lasagna with sweet potato and pesto (NIS 55) with a small side salad. The combination of sweet potato and pesto might not look all that credible on paper, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It was right on the mark, if a bit heavy.
Focaccia Bar, 4 Rabbi Akiva Street, Jerusalem
Pasta Factory: This lovely Italian restaurant is one of the most fun places to eat in Haifa, where the Napolitan chef has built a menu filled with southern Italian classics. Not only can you take home his excellent lasagna sheets, but you can also sit inside and enjoy either meat or cheese lasagna (NIS 52). The cheese version features fresh lasagna sheets, hiding Bulgarian, Parmesan and Safed cheese and fresh mushrooms in cream sauce. Better run straight to the cardiologist after you’re done.
Pasta Factory, 4 Kedoshei Yassi Street, Haifa
Cafe Ringelblum: This restaurant is of the most exciting projects in Be’er Sheva. Established in 2009 in the city’s Dalet neighborhood, it offers professional training in its kitchen to at-risk teenagers. You won’t find lasagna on the restaurant’s usual menu, but it frequently appears as a special. It’s a good deal that includes a glass of wine for NIS 52. The welcome addition of eggplant and roast pepper make Ringelblum’s lasagna a fun, filling dish that you can’t stop nibbling.
Cafe Ringelblum, 86 Ringelblum Street, Dalet neighborhood, Be’er Sheva
Lala Cafe: Yet more proof that restaurants at fuel stations can be a pleasant surprise, the residents of the Jordan Valley already know that Lala Cafe is one of the nicest places to go in the area. It’s known for its family atmosphere and light Italian menu, where everyone can find something good. The lasagna (NIS 63) is a taste of home, too. It’s made with layers of fresh pasta and ground beef cooked in tomato sauce and bechamel. The portions are enormous, so make sure you’re hungry when you go. Even if the lasagna isn’t particularly innovative, it’s done right.
Lala Cafe, Kfar Baruch Junction, Sarid
Tiramisu – After Operation Pillar of Defense, a visit of support to Ashdod is well worthwhile, particularly thanks to lovely places like Tiramisu. This fish and dairy restaurant doesn’t have to be avant-garde to provide good, satisfying food at excellent prices. If you order the house lasagna (NIS 47), you have a choice between three sauces, but the filling is always the same: mushrooms and cheese. It’s worth the trip.
Tiramisu, 2 Hanevi’im Street, Ashdod