Big Itzik’s is jam-packed with diners, crowded around simple restaurant tables overflowing with food. Big Itzik himself, Itzik Hagadol to give him his Hebrew name, didn’t get his handle or his frame from dainty portions. When I visited in 2016, Itzik and his son had been piling their customers’ plates with lamb chops and beef steaks for two decades, offering mere chicken to feed the faint hearted. No meat-and-two-veg operation this, the minute a customer hits the seat, plates bearing salads begin to dash upon the table until all available space is filled with their variety. There are more than 20 vegetables and herbs, pickled, roasted, baked, spiced, or just chopped and dressed with lemon juice, oil and coriander. Eggplant is served three ways, but nothing beats for flavour the whole roasted and charred fruit splayed open upon a plate, glistening with olive oil and redolent of woodsmoke. Somehow space is made on the table for baskets of fire-hot, sesame-seeded flatbread, that arrives almost smoking from the oven. We use it to scoop up vegetables and dab at hummus. Then, before you can pause for breath or loosen belts to accommodate what you have already eaten, the meat arrives – grilled to perfection over charcoal.
Big Itzik’s is in Old Jaffa, an ancient town in Israel now swallowed by the conurbation of Tel Avi-Yafo. Itzi Hagadol himself is originally from Iraq and the food he serves is Mizrahi – that is typical of Jews from the Arab countries to the East. No chicken soup with matzo balls, chopped liver, bagels, herring or gefilte fish in this particular Jewish establishment. Jewish cuisine is as broad as the Jewish diaspora is wide, parsing local foods through religious dietary laws. In the Muslim world these are very similar to Jewish ones. Kashrut and Halal are homologous. What is remarkable about Itzik Hagadol is that the food story in this restaurant is truly big. It is bigger than the portions, bigger than Itzik, bigger than Israel and bigger than Iraq. Take a pencil to a map of this region and place it on the Meditteranean coastline of Israel. Now sweep your hand northwards into Turkey, east through Iran and then down again, southwards into Iraq. The arc you have drawn between Itzik’s restaurant and his birthplace delineates the Fertile Crescent. This is the region in which farming began around 12,000 years ago. The wheat furnishing the flatbread at Itzik’s table was domesticated there. So were chickpeas that made the hummus into which we dipped our bread, and lentils, fava beans, peas, barley, the lamb and the beef. Even pigs were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, though of course you won’t find those on Itzik’s menu.
As you would expect, even a restaurant in the birthplace of farming has acquired foods and influences from elsewhere, though some of these are also ancient. The anathema against pork in Judaism and Islam may be traced back to Ancient Egypt where a Pig-God was alternately worshipped and abhorred. When the Jewish dietary laws were first encoded, not eating pig may have been à la mode, or possibly the reverse and thereby a means by which Jews could distinguish themselves from other peoples. Other dietary novelties were certainly adopted for their culinary rather than cultural value. Eggplant, lemons and sesame, so essential to Mizrahi and similar cuisines in the region, were all ancient imports from Asia.