Tel Aviv, to many visitors, is all about the beaches. Being on the coastline is an undeniable perk, but Tel Aviv is larger than its most marketable feature. In fact, a big percentage of its nondescript charm (ask any local, and they’ll lovingly tell you Tel Aviv is in fact ‘ugly’) lies in the city’s inner neighborhoods, along its dusty boulevards and among its shabby-chic Bauhaus buildings. One of those neighborhoods is Florentin - located in the south of Tel Aviv, between historic Neve Tzedek, leafy Rothschild Boulevard and sketchy Tahana Merkazit. Florentine is neither stylish, sketchy or picturesque - it’s a lived-in Tel Avivian neighborhood with rows upon rows of 4-stories apartment buildings, and a myriad of bars and eateries dotting the narrow streets. During the day, it’s a hectic hub of small houseware stores, fabric wholesalers and repairs businesses and at night, it’s a popular hangout for food, drinks and people-watching, free of pretense and always welcoming.
Within Florentin, micro-hoods evolve around the more popular businesses. One such area is Levinsky, a maze of spice shops, delis and emerging hip restaurants. In big cities, one popular place sprouts more openings nearby; Levinsky developed this way,too. One after another, trendy restaurants and kiosks have started appearing here in recent years, and HaHalutzim 3, a blink-and-you-miss it restaurant, was one of the first ones - named after the street it’s on, ‘halutzim’ in Hebrew aptly means ‘pioneers’. Eytan Vanunu and Naama Szterenlicht, the couple who own it, dreamt of opening a small restaurant for some time, and the result looks like someone’s adorably cluttered and happening living room. Mismatched chairs and vintage plates, an open kitchen and only a few seats, permanently occupied.
HaHalutzim 3 and its creators live the Levinsky pace every day. Vanunu, the chef, and Szterenlicht, front of the house and supporting consultant, don’t need to go far to shop for fresh ingredients for the restaurant - almost everything is available a few blocks around it. A typical week can start with a colorful ‘gazoz’ drink from the tiny, hole in the wall Cafe Levinsky 41 — an edible, drinkable bouquet of fruits, herbs and bubbles is created on the spotin an elaborate, mouthwatering process. Then, the morning sun disappears upon entering the low-ceiling, intimate spice shop Chavshush Ariye, a long-standing neighborhood institution. Dried Persian lemon, cumin and chili fragrances float in the air, bags upon bags of powders and herbs fill the shelves. Lunch sneaks up quickly, and a crumbly burekas (philo and cheese pastry from the Balkans), preferably from Burekas Levinsky, is an instantaneous, messy comfort in a paper bag. Then, the two are ready to head back and start orchestrating the dinner menu. The menu is an Israeli-European affair, merging buttery rich pastas and feta-sprinkled fresh salads, fresh fish with hearty stews. These days, Israeli cuisine is almost impossible to define, but there are a few constants - fresh vegetables, olive oil, open fire roasting, fresh ocean fish and seafood, herbs and bold flavors. On a sunny afternoon, Vanunu makes gazpacho and lentil salad, blitzing fiery tomatoes and chopping onions, mixing yogurt and olive oil. Outside, cars are tightly parked by the sidewalk, bicycles pass, nothing seems too slick. Like HaHalutzim 3 itself, Levinsky is authentic and humble, and neither need to work hard to keep you coming back.