Italian-Israeli chef and opera singer calls restaurant his stage
The owner of Apple and Pear brings his own upbringing to the table, courtesy of house-made, authentic Italian food in Jerusalem.
I heard about Apple and Pear (Agas Ve’Tapuah or Pera e Mela) Italian restaurant in Jerusalem’s Safra Square from friends around the world, and chose to visit there as one of the first stops on my Israel food reporting trip.
We were greeted at the door by chef and owner Gionatan Ottolenghi, with a hearty and welcoming, “Benvenuto!” He escorted us to our table, where we ordered an appetizer of warm sliced mushrooms marinated in white wine, olive oil, and garlic and served with grape tomatoes and chiffonade greens. The dish was unpretentious, beautifully plated and perfectly done; we dug in with hearty appetites while Ottolenghi told us a bit about his family history.
One of five children born in Milan to an Italian father and English mother, Ottolenghi was raised with a deep love of Israel. All his siblings moved to Israel after high school, but he stayed in Italy to assist his father with the family business and attend university to become a pharmacist. “I remember one chemistry professor told our class, ‘At the end of the semester, you will either be a very good chemist, or a very good chef.’ I became a chef!”
Gionatan moved to Israel in 1976, met and married his wife Miriam, and the couple lived in the Golan Heights, where they worked in farming and agriculture. After several years, they moved to Jerusalem, where Ottolenghi dreamed of retiring. In 1985, he opened a restaurant in the Han Theater with a business partner, and since then, has owned several restaurants in Israel.
The entrees are brought out and we are wowed again by the freshness and smooth flavor of the al dente spinach ravioli in tomato cream sauce, pesto fettuccini, and marinated salmon. I taste a bite of incredibly tender salmon, and Gionatan explains that it cooks for only five minutes after marinating in white wine.
I ask Gionatan where he got his love of cooking, “I was in the kitchen since I was 4, cooking with my grandmama,” he tells me. “In college, I was the one who was in the kitchen with the girls cooking up all the food for parties. Everyone knew I loved to cook, and I loved to eat. It comes from my family.”
Apple and Pear makes all their pasta and sauces in house, and the chef is happy to teach his customers how to recreate his incredible dishes. He’s had people come in to video him cooking in the restaurant kitchen, has shared his wildly popular house dressing recipe, and regularly teaches the parents of kids with celiac how to prepare gluten-free pizza. This is not a chef who keeps his treasured recipes to himself; anything that Ottolenghi can do to help others, he does with grace.
“Everyone wants to come work here,” he boasts proudly. Italian teens who move to Israel know they will find a job, and a father figure, in Ottolenghi. He helps them acclimate, learn the language, teaches them how to cook, and then they move on having gotten their start at this incredible restaurant.
Ottolenghi tells us that in one family, all four of the kids worked for him. Another woman worked in the restaurant while she was pregnant, and that child later worked there when he was a young adult; he proudly shares that this boy worked for him before he was born.
“This restaurant is my stage,” says Ottolenghi, and his hands sweep across the room, “I acted professionally years ago, in La Bisbetica Domata. I was running a restaurant in a theater at that time, so I would recite my lines, and then hurry backstage and go over to the restaurant to instruct them what to do.” He’s still acting, in a way – Gionatan rides a motorcycle around town, and with his white helmet and black gloves is often mistaken for a policeman. He milks that for all its worth by staring at drivers who are on their phones (it’s illegal in Israel, and carries a 1,000 shekel fine) until they catch his eye and quickly hang up.
Gionatan is also a skilled opera singer. Although he never trained professionally, you wouldn’t know it listening to his rich tenor.
As we peruse the dessert menu, a large group comes in and Ottolenghi goes over to greet them enthusiastically in several languages. They laugh together, and ask if he will sing for them. Another group comes in, and one of the ladies is holding birthday balloons. The chef goes over to welcome the group, asks their names, and gives them special attention. I watch their reactions and they are looking at him with shining eyes and huge smiles. Ottolenghi is clearly a seasoned singer and chef, but his ability to make his guests comfortable and happy, as if they are his new best friend, is the trait I admire most.
Gionatan comes back to our table, recommends the banana chocolate crepes, and mimics the sound that the bubbling, melting chocolate – not syrup, he says, real chocolate – makes in the bowl. And when the dessert comes, we’re delighted to see that it is actually noisily bubbling. We make quick work of the crepes – they are insanely delicious, with subtle banana flavor, rich, creamy dark chocolate, and loads of cream. We follow up with a slice of authentic Italian tiramisu – wet sponge base, light and airy texture, strong coffee flavor.
To celebrate two birthdays of clients in the restaurant, Ottolenghi comes out of the kitchen wearing a red clown nose, climbs up on a milk crate, and sings "Happy Birthday" in Italian to the delight of all of us sitting there. This multi-talented man who has lived in several countries, served in wars, built houses, and owned and managed successful businesses, doesn’t take himself too seriously. I look around and everyone is enthralled. At the end of the night I know the taste of incredible Italian food will fade, but the real treat at Apple and Pear was getting to meet Gionatan Ottolenghi.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE: