The first thing I did when arriving in Petah Tiqwa (a town outside of Tel Aviv) on Tuesday, October 8, 2013 was get pizza.
The friends who hosted me the first few months in Israel always brought home Duda La Pizza on Tuesdays. So, of course, that is what was for dinner the day I landed in Israel. Two out of four of my new roommates (not counting the two puppies) had come to get me from the airport, and we traveled together to Petah Tiqwa in the late afternoon. We were celebrating, so the three of us dropped off my bags at the apartment and walked down the street to eat at the shop instead of taking out. We sat in bright green and orange plastic chairs and watched the cars and people go by while we ate. My friends were jabbering rapidly to each other. I was so exhausted; I don’t remember what we were talking about or if I even truly participated in the conversation.
I do remember, after the jet lag passed, thinking how funny it was that I ate pizza for my first meal as an Israeli citizen. I think that’s something worth noting. There is a discrepancy between the places we visit and the places we live. When you visit Israel as a tourist, you will want to eat hummus and falafel, and drink Goldstar beer, no doubt. But the day-to-day life as an expat brings a realization of how similar we all are. In daily life in Israel, we drink Danish beer and eat pizza.
The culture for Israeli young adults revolves around pizza far more than I expected. Never underestimate how much Israelis love pizza. Pizza in Israel is an entirely different experience than in the U.S.: Pizza before, during, and after a night out. A slice when the office orders out together. A slice at 7 AM at the central bus station on the way home from base (I never did that, nooo). A slice at the beach to complement beer and watermelon. A slice during a stop in civilization during a trek in the mountains. Family/household/kibbutz-wide pizza dinners, always on Tuesdays*. Even unassuming corner shops will be at capacity on a Saturday night: teenagers and parents-of-five alike are placing orders, joking, shouting, and drinking Coca-Cola from thin plastic cups, a mess of napkins and opened sauce packets scattered on each table.
And yet: most pizza in Israel is terrible. I’m always reminded of this when I eat a really good slice abroad.
Because the idea is that it is a cheap, quick, and easy food, they don’t bother making it actually taste good. It’s either too greasy or too dry. The ratio of sauce to cheese to dough is always off. It’s not thick crust, but it isn’t crispy thin, either. Duda La Pizza is not known for its delicious pizza, but more the fact that you can get a whole pie for just 20 NIS (about $5.50 USD).
The reason that, despite this, people still eat so much pizza in Israel is that there is a simple, but genius hack. Israeli pizza shops have an array of sauces, spices, and dips to accompany their slices. The go-to is called simply “pizza spice” and it usually consists of finely ground salt, oregano, basil, garlic powder, and chili powder. Each pizzeria has their own recipe or brand of choice, and offers them up in little packets alongside Thousand Island dressing and garlic sauce (different from garlic dipping sauce offered with pizza from certain large companies in America). Every person knows where they can get the pizza spice of their preference, and will inevitably have a stash of the packets in their kitchen junk drawer alongside twist-ties and bottle openers.
To be fair, when you find yourself in a proper Italian restaurant in Israel, the pizza will be decadent and crisp. You may discover new, wild flavor combinations or pizzas that remind you of the time you visited Naples. And, if you eat kosher or halal, you can indulge without stress at many locations.
The wonderful thing is that pizza is global. In the U.S. they dip it in ranch dressing. In South Korea, they eat it with pickled radishes and kimchi. In Sweden, you can find pizza topped with peanuts, banana, and curry. In India, pizza is served with cubes of paneer. In Russia, they eat it cold with pickled fish and raw onions. In Brazil, they love pizza with green peas and hearts of palm. In Israel, common toppings are corn, tuna, Thousand Island dressing and hot sauce. We may all have our own approaches to how, when, or with what we eat it, but at the end of the day, we all love pizza.
*The work week in Israel begins on Sunday, and ends at some point before Friday afternoon. Tuesday night is the middle of the week, the perfect day to splurge.