Voices of Jerusalem: Ciao Bella Jerusalem

Loren Minsky speaks to Gionatan Ottolengi, 61, owner of the oldest Italian restaurant in Jerusalem, Agas veTapuach.

Voices of Jerusalem: Ciao Bella Jerusalem (photo credit: courtesy)
Voices of Jerusalem: Ciao Bella Jerusalem
(photo credit: courtesy)
"There were plenty of things I wanted to do in my life and owning a restaurant was not on the list," chuckles Gionatan Ottolenghi, the owner of Agas veTapuach in Safra Square in Jerusalem, also known as Pera e Mela in Italian and Pear and Apple in English. The restaurant has been around for 27 years, making it the longest standing Italian restaurant in the city.
"I grew up with one foot in the kitchen," says Gionatan. "I used to sit and watch my maternal grandmother for hours."One of five children, Gionatan grew up near Milan in a family of Zionists and was heavily involved with Bnei Akiva Italy. His father was Italian, and his mother was from Liverpool, England.
When Gionatan was 13, Gionatan and his musical brothers served as hazzanim in their small synagogue in a nearby Jewish school. "I have great memories of singing Shabbat songs together," recalls Gionatan.
After he completed school, Gionatan chose to study pharmacy in Israel, as he wanted to learn something that he could use in Israel if he made aliya, which was always an aim for him and his siblings. But, after working as a pharmacist in Tel Hashomer for his cousin for six months, he knew quickly that it was not for him.
Gionatan met his wife Miriam in 1973 at his sister's wedding In Israel. Miriam had made aliya from Rome in 1973, and in 1976 Gionatan made aliya too and they got married.
The couple lived in the Golan Heights for five years between 1979 and 1984. To start, Gionatan worked as a farmer on Kibbutz Nov, fulfilling a dream of his to work the land in Israel, and he grew apples, plums, cotton, onions, garlic, corn, cucumber seeds and daffodils, which he exported to Holland. "I used to drive around on my tractor with an M16 and pistol for security, "smiles Gionatan, which is part of why they eventually left the Golan.
During the first Lebanon War in the early 1980s, Gionatan served as a field medic. When he returned to his crops after the war, they had deteriorated so significantly thathe made the decisionto work as a builder instead – an interest of his since was ha little child. "Hashem gave me two hands, and they've been very good to me," reflects Gionatan.
Thereafter, the couple came to Jerusalem. "I always dreamt of living out my pension days in Jerusalem," smiles Gionatan. "So I came before." Gionatan then got into renovations and handyman work. But, after two years, his love for cooking and eating inspired him to open a restaurant.
Together with a Roman ole hadash (new immigrant), Gionatan bought and ran a small restauranton Hama'a lot Street in the town center. The restaurant had previously served as a creperie serving blintzes and crepes – both savory and sweet. The restaurant atmosphere was informal and warm from the beginning.
In 1985 Gionatan opened up another restaurant in the Khan Theater, whichrelocatedto Safra Square in 1999. In 2002, during the intifada, running the business on Safra Square became so challenging that he locked up the restaurant and operated just on Hamaalot Street. "It was an incredibly frustrating time to just sit with the keys," recalls Gionatan.
The restaurant re-opened in June 2005, and is now the only restaurant in Safra Square. "Although it's a magnificent, laid-back location with views of the Old City walls and space for kids to play on the grass, the location is a challenge," says Gionatan. "About 95% of our clientele come to me through word of mouth. It's barely ever people passing by or random customers." Although the restaurant is conveniently located on the light rail, Gionatan speaks of how the light rail has only brought requests to use their rest room.
Gionatan has a very warm relationship with his customers. People enjoy the delicious home-made pasta and food made using the highest quality ingredients, but also the personality of the place and Gionatan's Italian charm and sense of humor.
The restaurant is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union of America (OU) and in general attracts a crowd of religious tourists and foreigners. However, Gionatanis finding the restaurant industry has taken a hit as a result of the poor economy world-wide. "The middle class is disappearing; many customers simply can't afford to eat out as they used to," says Gionatan. "We're surviving, but my wife and sister work with me in order to make the business a success."
Gionatan and Miriam have learned to keep their tasks at the restaurant as separate as possible. Miriam cooks at home, and Gionatan at the restaurant. "My kitchen is extremely sterile and orderly; the influence from my pharmacy days," says Gionatan. "At the restaurant, I like things done my way. Also I take pride in offering quick service and therefore need a clear system for this to happen."
One of the restaurant's trademarks is Gionatan's opera performances and Italian chazzanut performances. From NessunDorma to an operatic happy birthday, Gionatan surprises first-time patrons and delights regulars with his outbursts of song. "Many people hear about the restaurant and come straight here from the airport," says Gionatan, who views the restaurant as his "private club" with a real family atmosphere.
Gionatan is very involved in the Italian synagogue, part of the Museum of Italian Jewish Art on Hillel Street in town. "The service there is neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi," says Gionatan proudly. It's Italian.The service is shorter like Ashkenazi Jews, louder like Sephardic Jews, with lots more singing than both. All of the synagogue's Judaica is special and was either brought over from Italy or painstakingly restored." The synagogue is open to the public for the services on Shabbat and is very popular with tourists.
Gionatan gives regular lectures at the Museum and instructs the audience in principles of Jewish cooking, taking into account different periods and regional cooking styles in Italy. "I sprinkle my lectures with comedy and like to burst into opera for dramatic impact and surprise," says Gionatan.
Gionatan's siblings are all super-talented in their own right, and their accomplishments range from being a top investment banker in London to a famous singer. His sister who helps out in the restaurant was a famous cook in Tel Aviv before moving to Jerusalem. Miriam and Gionatan have two daughters, one whom is studying and one who works with autistic children.
Gionatan's father is 92-years-old and is still independent and healthy. He learns Torah once a week and has a very active memory. He is currently writing a book about his story during the Second World War when he ran away from the Nazis to Switzerland dressed up as soldier. The book is more for the family's records. "His secret is eating pasta twice a day every day!" says Gionatan earnestly.
Gionatan lives in the neighborhood of Kiryat Shmuel in Jerusalem, which he likes for its close proximity to the Italian synagogue in town that he goes to every Shabbat.
"Until last year, I sang in a ladino choir of 18 members," says Gionatan. The group sings Kabbalat Shabbat songs and has released 3 CDs. The group played in festivals, at the Israel Museum and at old age homes. "But unfortunately this past year I have had no free time."
"I make sure to eat pasta every day," says Gionatan. "I also enjoy eating meat, mushrooms and schnitzel."
"Plans for the future? To rest a little more as the restaurant takes up all of my time," says Gionatan. "But I'm happy with my life. I have really always done what I wanted to do."
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