For Your Simcha In Israel: Itzik Hagadol

— Ronit Treatman

If your family is dispersed around the world like mine, then sometimes having a simcha requires more than one celebration. I was recently privileged to participate in my son’s Bar Mitzvah. He read from the Torah here in Philadelphia and rejoiced with family and friends. We planned a special visit to Israel in honor of his Bar Mitzvah to continue the celebration with the rest of our family in Israel. My mission: to find a restaurant in a central location in Israel around the Tel Aviv area that could arrange a festive meal for twenty-five people.

I blundered into my first faux pas when I asked my aunts and uncles, “What do you recommend?”  I had just entered the zero-sum game of Middle Eastern politics.  If I followed the advice of one, then I would insult all the others!  My brother proposed Aladdin, a restaurant in Old Jaffa, in a charming six hundred year old building overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  Unfortunately, they could not accommodate a group of our size.  My friend Ned suggested that I check Zagat.  He travels a lot, and they have always come through for him.  I checked with Zagat, and was flabbergasted to discover that Zagat does not cover Israel!  I looked at some restaurants that came up when I Googled restaurants in Tel Aviv.  I was really appalled at the prevalence of pork and shellfish on the menus.  For me, the restaurant did not have to be certified kosher, but I did not want any treif!   So I turned to Chowhound.

More after the jump.
Chowhound is a message board, “devoted to the pleasure of food and drink,” on which all sorts of visitors record their experiences around the world.  Chowhounds from both Israel and abroad raved about a “shipudia,” a “skewery,” called Itzik Hagadol.  I went to the Itzik Hagadol website and discovered that Itzik has two restaurants: the original Israeli grill restaurant in Jaffa, Israel, and an additional restaurant in Encino, California.  If you click on the Encino location, you may peruse the menu in English.  I was sold as soon as I turned to the first page of the menu.  Twenty house salads!  All the laffah (Iraqi pita) you can eat freshly baked in their tabun (wood fired brick oven).  There is an ample selection of lamb, chicken, beef, turkey, goose, and fish to be grilled over coals.  No pork, no shellfish! There is a separate Kosher grill for observant diners.  It was exactly what I was looking for!  I called to make a reservation.  Due to the time differences, I was not successful in making the arrangements with the staff at the Jaffa location.  I called the restaurant in Encino, California.  Michael, a manager there, is one of the nicest men I have ever dealt with.  He took care of all the arrangements for me.  I planned the menu with him and selected the wine, at a very fair price.  Although I offered, he refused to take a deposit in advance.

When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I verified that Itzik Hagadol was a good choice with my best and most reliable sources.  Every time I took a taxi, I interrogated the driver.  Six cab rides resulted with a unanimous opinion.  Itzik was a great choice, and I was lucky to have snagged a reservation!  At the appointed date and time, we arrived at the restaurant on Raziel Street in Jaffa. Itzik Hagadol is located in an old limestone building with a large green and red neon sign over the door.  There is an open kitchen with a big display window facing the street.  The fresh cuts of meat are on exhibition, and the charcoal grilling and tabun baking are visible to all who walk by or come in.  Itzik himself greeted us, and showed us to our table in the center of the restaurant.  We were seated in a light airy room, surrounded by large, arched windows.  As our family streamed in from all over Israel, Itziks’s staff brought out little plates of fresh, colorful vegetable salads, crunchy falafel balls, olives, pickles, and every conceivable preparation of eggplant.  Pitchers of homemade lemonade and cold water were placed on the table.  There was so much food that the waiters asked us to move back from the table so they could fit it all.  There is an extensive wine list showcasing Israeli wines.  Our table enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon Golan.  We said a shehechiyanu, and I think that even in secular Tel Aviv it brought some tears to the eyes of the diners around us.  Fresh hot laffa and Israeli salad accented with freshly minced mint leaves were served, followed by the grilled meats of each diner’s choice.  My lamb skewer was perfectly cooked, moist on the inside, and very flavorful.  We concluded the meal with coffee, mint tea, malabi (rose scented almond pudding) and pareve Bavarian cream topped with chocolate.

At the end of the meal we went up to Itzik to thank him.  By Mediterranean standards, Itzik is tall.  As he towered over us at about six feet, I thought to myself that his restaurant is not really named Itzik Hagadol (the large) for his height.  I think that this restaurant is very appropriately named Itzik Hagadol for his big heart.  He knew that this dinner was important to me, and he made it important to him.  He personally made sure that everything was perfect.  I am left with the lingering taste of delicious food, a warm ambience, good memories and naches.

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