Big Itzik: A Jaffa institution

Itzik HaGadol has been serving large, tasty meals for two decades.

A meat dish at Itzik HaGadol. (photo credit: BUZZY GORDON)
A meat dish at Itzik HaGadol.
(photo credit: BUZZY GORDON)
Over the past two years, in the time I have been writing for this section of the paper, I have learned much about Israelis’ dining habits, beyond merely the food served in our country’s restaurants. For example, for many families, the dietary observance of Shabbat involves traditional Friday night dinners at home, and then Saturday afternoon lunches eaten out.
One of the most popular restaurants for this kind of weekly outing is Itzik Hagadol, a sprawling establishment with colorful neon signage located on a narrow street in the heart of Jaffa. Invariably, lines snake out the door on Saturdays and holidays, with hostesses stationed out on the sidewalk to manage the traffic.
Itzik HaGadol has been on a constant trajectory of expansion ever since it opened its doors 21 years ago. From a tiny storefront in 1996, it grew by buying out its neighbors in all directions – a total of 15 over the years – in order to accommodate its burgeoning clientele. Along the way, its menu amplified as well, from a short list in Hebrew only, to its current form: a seven-page folio in Hebrew, English, French and Russian. The name of the restaurant’s owner really is Itzik, and the secret to his success lies in three key elements: he knows his customers; he knows what they want; and he knows how to give it to them. Simple to conceive, not so easy to execute.
Firstly, he understands his clientele and their uniquely Israeli concept of flexible kashrut: They drive on Shabbat and eat food cooked on Shabbat, but they prefer that the restaurants they patronize do not have pork or seafood on the menu, while they themselves refrain from consuming meat with dairy. Consequently, Itzik HaGadol serves only kosher meat and fish, and no dairy is served, even with coffee or in the desserts.
Secondly, the busy restaurant runs with impressive efficiency. The waiters, dressed all in black and wearing earpieces, bring to mind the professionalism of secret service agents. And despite the feel of the place as a casual family restaurant, the way the waiters pour the wine reflects the kind of training associated with a fine dining establishment.
Thirdly – and the sine qua non of any successful restaurant – the food is excellent. Itzik personally supervises the entire supply chain of the raw ingredients. The restaurant is also a retail butcher shop, and he even grows some of the vegetables served. Like his wait staff, many of the cooks have been with him from the beginning, and the experience shows.
Finally, the food is plentiful. A meal at Itzik HaGadol starts with a jaw-dropping presentation. One by one, the waiter sets out on the table 18 plates of mezze (NIS 29 with the order of a main dish; NIS 55 if the salads are your entire meal). The plates are not large, but they can be refilled endlessly, and the variety is stunning.
All the mezze are listed on the menu, although space does not permit a separate line for each. Nor does space allow for describing each one here, but the ones that left a lasting impression were the coarse fava bean hummus; vegetarian chopped liver (made with eggplant, one of the five ways the vegetable makes an appearance as an appetizer); falafel balls served with thin slices of breaded and fried eggplant; extra-creamy coleslaw; smoky eggplant in tomato sauce; zesty matboukha; roasted potatoes; and three types of fiery skhoug.
The mezze were accompanied by a huge, lafa-style pita, topped with sesame and ketzah seeds. A second soft flatbread can be served upon request.
Even this multitude of mezze does not exhaust the appetizers on offer at Itzik HaGadol. Recommended premium appetizers include marinated Portobello mushrooms with campfire onion and tomato (NIS 31); hummus that is worthy of its Jaffa venue (NIS 24); tehina seasoned with garlic, parsley and olive oil (NIS 27); and chopped chicken liver, enhanced with an exotic touch of nutmeg (NIS 33).
The main dishes feature 17 skewers of assorted cuts of beef, lamb and poultry; choice cuts of steak; and even Wagyu beef. From this plethora of choices, our waiter recommended the lamb sirloin (NIS 220). Served on a wooden platter with grilled Portobello, onion and tomato, the lamb steak, grilled to perfection, was positively succulent.
Although there are only two fish dishes on the extensive menu, my companion insisted on ordering the sea bass (NIS 110), grilled on citrus charcoal. The butterflied whole fish was brilliant in its presentation, while the flesh of the white fish retained all its moistness and flavor.
The bilingual wine list at Itzik HaGadol is certainly distinctive: It is printed on the side of a Jeroboam bottle. All the wines – predominantly red – are Israeli, with only two house wines: a 2014 Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon by Yarden, available by the glass (NIS 50), and even then only on request.
The dessert menu, in Hebrew only, comprises nine parve options (NIS 30-36), all but two of which are chocolate. The coconut milk malabi – literally drenched in rosewater and topped with a generous sprinkling of grated coconut and chopped pistachios – made for a reasonably light and sweet finale to an abundant and satisfying meal.
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Itzik HaGadol Not kosher 3 Raziel St., Jaffa Tel: (03) 683-0033