The winter harvest at Rustico

Tel Aviv’s Italian restaurant highlights ingredients at their peak of freshness.

Rustico (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv is an indulgent city, and the Italian restaurant Rustico is equally indulgent. It’s not a novice on the Italian cooking scene. It boasts the degree of Hospitalita Italiana awarded by the Italian Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Italian Chefs, which recognized the restaurant’s preservation of Italian culinary tradition and is commended as an authentic Italian institution.
Between December 20– 31, Rustico will be celebrating the traditional Italian festival of Sagra with a special menu highlighting Israel’s winter vegetables. The theme menu coincides with the restaurant’s seventh anniversary on Rothschild Boulevard and its fourth at its Basel Street location.
The Sagra festival is an Italian tradition that takes place in small villages throughout Italy to celebrate local ingredients at the peak of their freshness. As Tel Aviv transitions into the chilly, rainy months of winter, the Israeli harvest of pumpkin, butternut squash and tangerines are the ingredients Rustico has chosen to incorporate.
The atmosphere of the restaurant is true to the name, Italian rustic. The sturdy wooden tables with wroughtiron legs are inspired by Italian farming culture. Bottles of wine line the walls, set off by dim lighting and warm candlelight. The cooking station behind the bar offers transparency, and the food is made all the more appetizing while watching the chefs prepare it.
The Sagra festival menu begins with Rustico’s afritibo tangerine cocktail. It’s a fun drink made with Vermouth, Campari, and fresh pieces of tangerine, making it sweet but not overpowering. It’s a good pairing with the appetizers that have rich, hearty flavors.
Soup, bruschetta and pizza are all traditional warm Italian appetizers that Rustico builds on to emphasize Israel’s fresh root vegetables. The pizza with butternut squash, buffalo mozzarella and gorgonzola (NIS 58).  is a comfort food dream. The cheese is so creamy; that it lends itself more to a rich dip on top of the pizza crust. The flavors are salty, and basil and chili give it a spicy bite.
The butternut squash adds a meaty texture, but the dish still melts in your mouth. Rustico’s thin crust is a good base for the flavors.
The cream of pumpkin soup (NIS 33) is blended with chestnuts and porcini truffle oil and a garnish of chopped cashews to add texture. The oil thins the soup so it’s not too heavy. The woody flavor of the winter nuts balances the sweetness.
A generous serving of bruschetta (NIS 43) is good for two people. The bread is crisp on the outside and softened by the pesto topping. A thick slice of pumpkin, goat cheese and warm tomato complement each other but are bland when eaten separately.
Moving on to the main course, Rustico offers a carafe of warm sangria glass (NIS37 /carafe NIS 69.) The restaurant blended red wine, brandy and seasonal fruits. It’s a nice transition from the light cocktail and lends itself to enjoying the more robust main dishes. The pasta is a filling dish. Rigatoni is mixed in a rich cream sauce with pieces of smoked bacon, cubes of butternut squash, basil and pine nuts. It is traditional Italian hearty fare. The pasta is a solid choice over the beef and fish fillet.
Both the beef and fish fillet have positives on their plates, but they also have negatives. The beef (NIS 119) was a nice size, cooked medium rare with fresh ground pepper and salt. The cream sauce was nice enough, but the mashed sweet potatoes and broccoli side added nothing to the dish. The fish (NIS 109), on the other hand, was tasteless, but the pumpkin puree was very sweet. The gratin potatoes served with the fish was not the traditional recipe with cheese but had a fresh, natural taste. The skins of the potatoes were left on and added a salty crunch to the soft inside.
Dessert is the course of natural progression. Keeping with the Sagra theme, pumpkin is added to a traditional hot fruit crumble a la mode (NIS 37). It is a winter dessert with warm baked fruit topped with a brown sugar and cinnamon crumble.
Keeping with Italian tradition, tiramisu as an equally decadent option. The dessert is as creamy and thick as ice cream. There are no pretensions of minimalism; it’s a celebration of flavors and the abundance of them.
The meal is capped with traditional limoncello. The famed Italian alcohol is soft, sweet and not overpowering. It gives a bite but is enjoyable, mostly to perk the diner up after such a decadent meal.
A decision to dine at Rustico is a conscious one. It fills the body with warm comfort food and is a great way to find solace from dreary winter days.
The Sagra festival menu is available at Rustico’s two locations. The main menu is also available in addition to the specials.
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Rustico (Not kosher) 15 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv 42 Basel, Tel Aviv