Just for the (Israeli) taste?

While mega-chain Pizza Hut has left Emek Refaim, homegrown Pizza Sababa is still going strong with an informal, uniquely Israeli atmosphere.

pizza 88.298 (photo credit: )
pizza 88.298
(photo credit: )
At the end of January, after five years at the corner of Emek Refaim and Rahel Imenu streets in the German Colony, Pizza Hut served its last slice. Pizza Hut wasn't the first American chain to lose to a local. Jerusalemites have rejected a host of American fast food chains: KFC, Kenny Roger's Rooster, Wendy's, Dunkin Donuts, and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. International coffee chains have encountered similar preference for local grinds. Both America's Starbucks and Canada's The Second Cup have stopped percolating in Jerusalem. Belatedly, international fast food outlets have discovered that Anglos aren't necessarily keen to indulge in the flavors of their homeland but instead prefer local fare. The building owner, who requested anonymity, told In Jerusalem: "You're representing lashon hara (malicious talk). I can't speak for them. They moved." But across the street at the mom-and-pop Pizza Sababa, which Arik Sasson opened in 1990, his brother and store manager Tal Sasson had a more straightforward explanation. "Jews aren't freierim (suckers) when it comes to food," he says. "Ours is tastier. The quality is the first thing, in my opinion." Both eateries offered a kashrut certificate. There's no connection with being a chain or an independent business, he insists. "People like taste." Erez Harush, who has worked at the neighborhood pizza joint for eight-and-a-half years, concurs. "Quality says everything. We sell good pizza." But Adina, a customer who has lived in Israel for 20 years, says it is more than just good food that brings her back. She gives her son her "last shekel" coin to ride the locomotive that is a big hit with the under-three crowd at Sababa. Her friend Esther, also enjoying a midday break with her baby, notes that Pizza Sababa "has been here forever. It's part of our life. They're very nice people. My sister worked here." And Pizza Hut? Neither had ever eaten there but heard the slices were smaller. Both liked the informal, Israeli character of Pizza Sababa, where regulars are known by name, and can ask for credit - and get it. Says Renee Benkemoun, originally from New York and then Florida, "I'm allergic to pizza. But for my daughter's birthday party I got [Pizza] Sababa 'cause everyone's always in Sababa. At Pizza Hut it was express. There wasn't anything for kids." International chains "try to be like a little America. It makes you feel a little at home." But Benkemoun, who prefers Israeli films to Hollywood movies, rarely feels homesick. On a sunny winter's day on Emek Refaim, local establishments Caf Hillel, Aroma Espresso Bar and Tal Bagels are teeming with customers, while not a single patron graces the terrace of McDonalds (which is not kosher.) Shoemaker Meir Yohananov, originally from Bukhara, has been resoling shoes from a tiny booth in Emek Refaim for the past 12 years. He has his own take on the food habits of the many English speakers he meets. "Tourists and visitors want a genuine local experience. Not something available at home." For NIS 50 Yohananov proceeds to sell me a pair of expensive, barely worn, American size 10 Italian leather loafers he has re-heeled for a foreign customer who never returned to pick them up. "I'm lovin' it," I think to myself.