“Let’s say you’re in some sort of sketchy bakery and you have a craving: What will be your go-to baked carb, the one you can’t go wrong with?” That question, on Twitter in Hebrew, sparked a debate recently. We’ve all been there – late at night, after a sports match, near the central bus station or simply with an hour to kill. Evidently, everyone has a default: a beigele (a soft pretzel), pizza, bourekas, whatever.
I noticed one evening after a soccer game at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield stadium that I was tempted to enter a bakery that was for some reason called Pizza, even though it had no pizza dough, no pizza sauce and no pizza cheese. It fulfilled a need at the moment, true, but also prompted me to think that there is an important issue here that’s little discussed but needs airing: the enormous progress made when it comes to ... dough.
Think about it. Every hamburger joint touts soft, fresh buns, while every new pizzeria on the street features hand-made doughs. Today’s typical-traditional bakery boasts artisanal accoutrements, and it seems that everywhere you look you see sourdough breads and brioche. The current standards in this realm are 1,000 light-years away from what we had around in Tel Aviv, say, five years ago.
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A case in point is the still-nameless, seemingly improvised storefront that opened recently at 4 Yehya Kapah Street. The guy there, a Neapolitan named Giuseppe (Pepe), rolls out fresh dough like nothing, slips it into the oven and pulls out pizza, focaccias, calzones and sfogliatellas that render words superfluous because your eyes will do all the work.
Pepe’s personal-size pizza, which costs 15 shekels ($4.40), may look like any other, but vive la différence! Real dough, fluffy and light, full of flavor and freshness, covered with a thin layer of high-quality tomato sauce – slightly sweet, with a hint of garlic and oregano – and a generous serving of mozzarella with a dash of Parmesan. I also ordered focaccia (20 shekels, for a large slice); it was thin and very crispy, without cheese but enhanced by some great seasonings and garlic. Pepe sprinkles olive oil over it and warms it up a bit more in the oven, from which it emerges boiling-hot and cut into four little, addictive squares. It’s the kind of thing that’s fun to eat on the spot but probably worth taking home or out to a picnic.
Then there was, as noted, the sfogliatella (15 shekels) – the shell-shaped, cream-filled pastry that’s now a hit in trendy cafes and bakeries. Pepe serves the Neopolitan version, filled with ricotta with touches of vanilla and orange zest. It’s sweet but not cloying; small but hits the spot.
If Pepe’s stand is the embodiment of simplicity, Shanski Branski on 97 Allenby simply defies definition. Is this a bar, café or fast-food joint? It’s probably all three, but not necessarily the new Jasmino, as many will probably call this new place, which was talked about even before it opened because it shares the same sidewalk and the same owner as the street-food place with Tel Aviv’s most beloved pita.
Here, too, the place is first and foremost about quality dough, which is the reason for coming in. It offers delicious, airy focaccia, crispy and hard on the outside, warm and soft on the inside. They are, of course, baked in-house and filled with a host of options that turn them into rich, interesting sandwiches (27-30 shekels a pop). These include the “rustic” (grilled eggplant, pepper, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc.); caprese (pesto, tomato, mozzarella); cured salmon (with cream cheese, capers, pickle and onion); stracchino (creamy cheese with grilled beets, red pepper and red onion); and smoked meat (with mayonnaise, mustard, pickle and a lot of green leaves). Also on the menu: hamburger, salads and, in the evening, pizza.
I ordered the last two kinds of focaccia on offer at Shanski Branski. I couldn’t decide if the stracchino’s best trait was its colorfulness, variety of ingredients or freshness. It included a generous helping of antipasti (sliced vegetables that were nicely roasted and minimally seasoned), interspersed with whitish, soft stracchino cheese that infused every bite with flavor while absorbing the flavors around it.
The meat focaccia was really surprising. What started as a random choice turned out to be one of the tastiest meat dishes I have ever sampled for this column: layers of thin, juicy slices of meat, well-smoked and lightly salted, complemented perfectly by greens in terms of both texture and taste. And with all this stuffed inside a fresh focaccia, which is put back in the oven after it is assembled and comes out hot and crispy – you really don’t need to wonder whether this is a café where you should start your day, a lunchtime fast-food joint or a bar to end your evening. More importantly, after this you certainly won’t need your default bakeries anymore.