Italian seasoning in Tel Aviv

Three restaurateurs reveal how they came to create a little corner of Italy in the middle of Tel Aviv.

Pasta Mia (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pasta Mia
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He was an Italian freshman playwright. She was an Israeli scenography student. He saw her from a distance in the theater department of Tel Aviv University, where they both took classes. They met and he knew he had only one chance to make her fall in love with him.
So he invited her over for a pasta dish called piatto di pasta. She accepted his invitation.
What followed was amore – love – and she was hooked, on him – and on pasta.
“They come together in one deal,” she said with a hearty laugh.
And that’s how Pasta Mia was born.
Starting out in 1996 as a take-away pasta shop, Pasta Mia today is a homey restaurant that caters to families as well as to teenagers and elderly couples.
“We are not a fancy restaurant,” said Maya Supino, now married to Giorgio. “We want people to feel comfortable, just as if they were coming home to eat.”
The couple learned the art of pasta-making from Giorgio’s parents, Giuglio and Laura.
Born in Rome, Giorgio, now 43, was only seven when he made aliya with his family.
The Supinos never parted with their Italian traditions, always speaking their native language at home and throwing big dinners for the Italian community in Herzliya, where they lived.
Giorgio’s father had brought a semi-professional pasta-making machine with him from Italy. His dream had been to cook pasta dishes while going around the country in a vendor bus.
But the old pasta maker never saw much of the Israeli landscape.
Instead, it was utilized in the family’s kitchen, where Giorgio would spend whole afternoons watching his mother making all sorts of goodies, from fettuccini to ravioli, for the big Italian-style dinners to which neighbors and friends were often invited.
“Giorgio was always fascinated by the machine and always interested in pasta,” said Maya, “and he always dreamed of having a restaurant of his own.”
As a young man, Giorgio returned to Italy, where he trained as a chef for a year. After he met Maya, the couple lived with mamma and papa Supino.
This time, it was Maya who spent time in the kitchen learning the art of Italian cuisine from her mother-in-law, who never followed a recipe book but cooked out of intuitiveness.
“She taught me the instinct of the Italian taste,” Maya said.
The couple also traveled together in Italy, where they learned a few more secrets of the art of pasta making from an old lady who had a pasta shop in Orvieto, a town in the southwest part of the country.
Once back in Israel, they opened Pasta Mia.
“We decided to put two or three tables in the store and show people what you could do with pasta,” said Maya.
Each day they added a new sauce and type of pasta to avoid boring customers as well as themselves.
With time and demand, the store became a small restaurant characterized by its intimate atmosphere.
A variety of fresh homemade pasta, gnocchi (potato dumplings) and ravioli with a choice of different sauces are on the menu every day, along with a selection of wines from around the world. Customers can choose to dine in the restaurant or take home a portion of their favorite pasta and sauce for about NIS 20. It’s great if you want to impress your guests with your “Italian cooking skills.”
The couple said that many of the recipes are just as they would be served in Mamma Laura’s kitchen.
And the old pasta-making machine that launched the shop? It cannot now meet the restaurant’s demand and is retained as a family keepsake. He could never get rid of it, Giorgio said.
‘This is the first Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv,” said Fiorella Fornari, owner of the Osteria da Fiorella, a simple, elegant restaurant that opened its doors in 1986.
Mother of three and grandmother of nine, the 65-yearold restaurateur likes to think of herself as a little bit like the mamma of the folks in the neighborhood. She said she has known some of her customers since they were in diapers.
“I have a personal relationship with my regular customers,” she said. “I see them growing up, I see them getting old; unfortunately, I also see some of them passing away.”
Born in Rome, Fornari made aliya with her family because of the bigoted attitudes and discrimination suffered by Jews in her native country.
“The thing is that a Jew is always an outsider,” she said.
“I was born and raised in Rome, from a lengthy Italian lineage, yet people still used to ask me what I was.”
Tired of having to explain why she wouldn’t eat shellfish at business dinners and why her children stayed home at the beginning of the school year because of the Jewish holidays, Fornari finally said: “Enough! We are going home.” One of her sons had come home from high school in tears because a schoolmate had told him he belonged in the oven.
What began as a small locale serving capuccinos and croissants only in the mornings is today a family restaurant carrying on the traditions of Jewish Italian cuisine.
Fornari runs the establishment with her son Fabrizio, who studied cuisine in Italy and abroad.
A warning: Do not visit this restaurant if you want a quick meal.
“Here, customers have to wait because everything is made fresh and cooked on the spot,” she said.
On the menu are scaloppine al limone (veal escalopes in lemon sauce, NIS 76); fegato alla veneziana (Venetianstyle liver, NIS 58.50); the Roman-Jewish concha, a fried zucchini dish (NIS 28.50); and homemade fettuccini, ravioli and gnocchi to be matched with your favorite sauce.
Mother and son have named two sauces after themselves: sugo alla Fiorella, made with four cheeses, tomato and vodka, and the spicy sugo alla Fabrizio with cream, tomato, cheese and smoked meat.
Cuciniamo, Mangiamo e Parliamo solo Italiano – We cook, eat and speak only Italian – is inscribed on the front door of Ernesto 90, a rustic, welcoming Italian restaurant on Rehov Ben-Yehuda.
Walk inside, and you are in for a treat.
“What we do here is authentic and historical Roman cuisine,” said owner Ernesto Marcheria, who claims the restaurant offers some dishes that have became hard to find even in Rome.
For NIS 90, a taste of Italian history can be experienced at this Tel Aviv restaurant. For instance, one of the house specialities is the coda alla vaccinara – oxtail in tomato sauce and celery – which has to be specially ordered in advance at restaurants in Rome.
“It requires such a long and slow preparation time that folks back home don’t bother making it anymore,” said the restaurateur.
The origin of this traditional dish dates back to the time when it was customary to boost the meager pay of the vaccinari – the cattle butchers – with the animals’ cheeks and tails. Creatively, the Italian vaccinari made a delicacy out of these scraps of meat.
Although Marcheria is secretive regarding quantities, he said the original recipe of this historic dish contains some ingredients only few people know about.
Other typical Roman dishes on the menu are the spaghetti alla carbonara in a creamy sauce with egg yolk, Parmesan cheese and diced goose breast; and spaghetti cacio e pepe with Pecorino Romano cheese and coarse black pepper (both NIS 59).
Appetizers include fiori di zucca fritti (fried zucchini “flowers” filled with mozzarella cheese, NIS 39) and carciofo alla romana (artichokes steamed with mint leaves, NIS 19).
The menu also offers an assortment of homemade tortellini and ravioli – both filled with ground meat or ricotta cheese and spinach – as well as homemade gnocchi. Meat and seafood specialities are also on the menu.
Limoncello, an Italian lemon liquor, is also homemade here.
Marcheria , 52, was born in Tel Aviv from Italian parents, but the family moved to Rome when he was a toddler. As an adult, he decided to come back to Israel, and bring a piece of Italy along with him.
“The restaurant was born out of the desire to export a little bit of Italy abroad,” he said.
He opened the restaurant in 1997 and the locale soon became a meeting point for compatriots living in the country and visiting from abroad.
“Italians gather here,” he said. “Sometimes they meet intentionally, and other times accidentally.”
Word of this “little bit of Italy” in the Middle East found its way back home, and Marcheria was recognized by the Italian Academy of Cuisine, Italy’s leading cultural and gastronomic association, in 2006.
“Our restaurant is so pure and adherent to the Roman tradition that Italians say we are excellent and Israelis think we are terrible,” said Marcheria, who does not like to make compromises when it comes to his cooking.
And if the cuisine has the same flavor as in the past, it is nevertheless tailored to the current lifestyle.
Intensely flavored sauces and hefty dishes are characteristic of Roman cuisine, said 55-year-old chef Angelo della Riccia, who made aliya in 1991.
“We slightly modernized the traditional Roman cuisine and made it lighter to meet the needs of those who follow diets and like to stay fit. It is important to find a balance, while preserving the Roman tradition.”
Della Riccia inherited his passion for cooking. He said his grandmother used to get up at five in the morning to go and shop for meat and vegetables, and his mother used to cook for 20 at a time.
“Today, Angelo is the backbone of the restaurant,” said Marcheria.