italian food 88.
(photo credit: )
Tucked away in the Jerusalem municipality compound in Safra Square stands the small entrance to an Italian restaurant. Exteriors can be deceiving; once inside, Pera e Mela reveals itself as a gracious space with comfortable seating.
An inviting and relaxed ambiance permeates Pera e Mela (which means "pear and apple" in Italian), accented by light music playing in the background, delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen, and the personality of its owner, Gionatan Ottolenghi.
Ottolenghi canvasses the restaurant with an easy-going manner and infectious spirit, welcoming new customers like old friends, offering menu suggestions and continuously checking on the diners, making drinks, checking in the kitchen - stopping only for a round of spontaneous song.
The evening I visited, Ottolenghi spent more time than usual in the kitchen because one of the cooks had a family emergency.
"Everybody comes together at this restaurant," he says, pouring homemade pesto sauce and shredded cheese while humming a tune. "My restaurant, it's not a restaurant but more of a gathering of friends. If they want to eat, they must put up with me or I make them mishuga," he adds with a laugh.
Ottolenghi has been in the kitchen since he was a four-year-old boy in Milan, learning his craft from his grandmother. He jokes that while other children played with clay, he played with pasta.
His menu reflects a mix of the meals he learned at home and what he has concocted himself. The menu has the usual pasta dishes, for which Ottolenghi makes the pasta fresh every morning. It also has its share of foccacia, bruschetta, croslino and funghi portabello.
Reading the menu is one thing, but trying the food is another. The large plates suggest the size of the portions.
"I give nice portions," says Ottolenghi, pointing to his own slightly round stomach with a smirk. "You can see me, I like nice portions."
Ottolenghi made aliya from Milan in 1976 when he was 24. An active Zionist, he spent five years in the Golan before moving to Jerusalem. There he met his wife, with whom he has two daughters.
Ottolenghi's mix of interests all come together at his restaurant, which he bought in 1984. A talented opera singer, he sings as he cooks, as well as for customers or on special occasions. In the midst of sharing his singing history, he actually bursts into song, capturing the attention of the entire establishment. He has served as a cantor for the Italian Synagogue and has two CDs of himself backed by a choir.
"I guess they think I have the voice for it," he says with a sparkle in his eye.
He speaks about the history of Pera e Mela with ease, as befits an oft-told tale. His establishment started during the first intifada but was among the restaurants that closed during the second.
Once the violence ended, and after his arrears on municipality taxes were paid at the end of 2005, Ottolenghi opened at his present location in Kikar Safra. Business has remained active, especially during the summer, when the restaurant hosts different activities on Wednesday evenings. Ottolenghi says people aren't able to find a table if they come on a Wednesday night in August.
Ottolenghi can converse with his customers (many of whom he has accompanied from brit mila to huppa) in Italian, English, Hebrew or French. He also give lectures on Italian cooking and enjoys teaching what he knows.
"It starts as a lecture and ends as stand-up comedy."
Pera e Mela is located in Kikar Safra, Rehov Jaffa 6. Tel: (02) 623-0280.