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(Photo by Sigal Kashkash)

Pita bread has long been synonymous in Israel with fast food. Whether you’re ordering a falafel, shawarma, or sabich, a pita sandwich is the cheapest and easiest way to grab a quick and inexpensive lunch. But the pita has undergone something of a revolution lately, and a new kind of culinary creation is on the ascent: the gourmet pita—a term that until recently sounded like an oxymoron. It’s not usually the bread that’s changed, but what’s inside: Dishes you’d traditionally find on a plate are now being served in a pita, elevating the bread to new culinary heights.

The latest gourmet-pita establishment is HaDalpak (meaning “the counter,” since the place seats diners at counters), which opened on Tel Aviv’s Mikveh Israel Street in mid-September. Owned by Yaniv Hamama, HaDalpak offers eight different options, such as lamb kebab with tahini paste (the stuff tahini sauce is made of) and mashwia salad (made of roast peppers and tomatoes), or chicken steak with sheep fat and lemons. In addition to the fillings, HaDalpak’s pitas are different, too. “Our pitas are more elastic, non-breakable, and expensive than the ones you usually get,” said HaDalpak’s manager Baruch (who didn’t want to give his last name).

Baruch sees HaDalpak as part of a wider phenomenon involving gourmet pita. “This is an ongoing trend that will continue developing,” he told me in a telephone interview. “First of all, the economic situation nowadays isn’t very good, and dinner for two in an upscale restaurant means dishing out 500 or 600 shekels [$135 to $165]. People want quality food for less, and gourmet pitas give them exactly that. If a portion of lamb kebab in a restaurant costs around 80 or 90 shekels [$20-$25], you can get the same lamb kebab in a pita for 34 or 36 [$10]. The quantity of meat is smaller but the quality and the freshness are the same. Gourmet-pita places can help people upgrade the quality of food they eat on a daily basis.”

Gourmet-pita stands are gaining popularity across Israel as they create a new niche, more upscale than a regular falafel, but cheaper and faster than traditional meals at sit-down restaurants. These are still informal places to eat, with a few seats at a counter or bar and perhaps a few tables inside or on the sidewalk—the dining experience is still closer to a street stand than a formal restaurant; this is the high end of street food rather than the low end of gourmet dining.

“Israelis like eating things in a pita, so why not get quality food in a pita instead of the usual junk food?” asked Baruch. “This is fast food but it isn’t junk food.”

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Unless you count the long-gone Malkot HaFalafel (The Queens of Falafel)—an upscale falafel stand that Ella Shine and Orna Agmon, owners of Tel Aviv’s dearly loved restaurant Orna ve-Ella, opened in the late 1990s—the man responsible for the current gourmet pita trend is celebrity chef Eyal Shani. Together with his business partner Shahar Segal, he runs eight different culinary establishments, which include the upscale gourmet restaurant Salon, a popular night-spot called Port Said, and four branches of his famous gourmet-pita stand Miznon, which offer everything from seafood to ratatouille to homemade ice cream in a pita.

“I didn’t start the trend—I invented it,” Shani told me by phone. “While I was working at my restaurant Salon I suddenly felt an overwhelming and inexplicable urge to make something in a pita, so I made a pita with shrimp. It was a unique blend of blanched shrimp with crème fraiche and tomato seeds, and it tasted like nothing else on earth. From that moment on I couldn’t stop. Customers devoured it and I’m talking about a pita that costs 130 or 140 shekels [$35]! One of our clients told me: Your genius is best manifested in a pita. That’s when I told my partner, Shahar: Let’s open a pita place. And we did.”

In 2011 Shani and Segal opened their first gourmet-pita stand, Miznon (meaning snack bar) on Tel Aviv’s busy Ibn Gabirol Street. Since then they added three more locations: Two are in Tel Aviv (the most recent one opened in the northeastern neighborhood Ramat HaHayal in June) and one in Paris, which opened last year. More international locations are on the way, including one in New York, which Shani believes will open next spring; they are also scouting for locations in Los Angeles, Vienna, and London.

“There are many places that try to imitate us. Aviv Moshe tried to imitate us not long after we started and he failed and closed the place,” Shani said, referring to the chef of the high-end restaurant Messa who in 2012 opened a pita stand called Yerushalmit on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv—it didn’t last very long. “We published an online PDF booklet called Miznon—The Mechanics and the Logic, in which we revealed every piece of information possible about the Miznon, including the logic behind everything. Everything that we make has a deep meaning behind it—we don’t make egg salad in a pita just because it tastes good. Some people advised us not to publish the manual because then people would be able to copy us, but we weren’t worried about that. People can try to copy us but no one can really succeed because you need 300 people who truly believe in the idea of the Miznon in order to make it happen. Whenever investors tell me they want to open a place like ours somewhere in the world, I tell them that it’s not profitable. The amount of work and time that goes into every little thing, like training the workers, is immense. We sell pitas, but before that we make happy working environments. A happy working environment creates a pita full of life and joy.”

Since Shani regards every Miznon as a unique restaurant rather than branches of a single restaurant, each Miznon offers unique dishes that are especially suited to its location, in addition to the basic dishes that are offered in all of them. For instance, you can find okra in a pita only in Ramat HaHayal; different types of seafood in a pita are unique to the Miznon on King George Street; and beef bourguignon or tarte tatin in a pita are specialties of the Paris Miznon.

Shani believes that pita is no longer simply a fast-food item, but rather a new way to serve inspired dishes. “A pita is a genius kind of bread,” he said. “It’s genius because it is a pocket that you transfer your dish into and it keeps developing in it. It keeps growing in another body. It’s like having a baby and transferring it to another womb that nurtures it further. You have to be a cook for many years to have the courage to let something else improve the dish you’ve made.”

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For a while Shani was the only one selling upscale pitas, but soon it caught on. In the summer of 2011 the people behind the restaurant HaBasta opened a Meurav Yerushalmi (Jerusalem mixed grill) joint on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street. HaMeurav, as it was called, satisfied its customers’ post-bar-hopping cravings with a pita containing an offal dish that was cooked with onions for eight hours. The place closed after a year, but more pita places were yet to follow, such as Aviv Moshe’s Yerushalmit and others.

Eran Laor, street-food critic for Haaretz, said it’s not a coincidence that the current wave of upscale pita places began in 2011, after the social justice protests that swept across Israel. “The Israeli public, and especially the people of Tel Aviv, want to pay less for their food,” he said. “This resulted in things like falafel for six shekels or a cup of coffee for five, and on the other end this also resulted in a new wave of street food, which is more sophisticated, ‘sexy,’ and ‘modern,’ and tries to re-invent the pita and what goes in it.”

While there are quite a few gourmet-pita stands in Tel Aviv, the trend has infiltrated other cities as well. In July, celebrity chef Avi Levy opened his second culinary establishment in Jerusalem. As opposed to his first restaurant, HaMotzi, his new place, Beit Hakavan, is smaller and focused on fast food and takeout. Beit Hakavan’s grub is based on Jerusalem street-food—the kind of Moroccan, Iraqi, Tunisian, and other ethnic homemade dishes that were traditionally sold in Jerusalem’s markets by the old ladies who made them—and is served either in a pita, in a paper cone, or in an individual iron Siniya dish. Levy makes his own pitas—he developed a unique kind of pita made out of challah dough, which he says is “very soft and very tasty … and tastes great even if it doesn’t have anything inside”—and offers 10 different options, such as spicy merguez sausages, Grandma Rachel’s french-fry omelette, asado stew cooked on a kerosene burner, entrecôte and fried egg, Levy’s own version of Jerusalem mixed grill, shakshouka, and more.

“Some people like their bite inside a pita and some like it next to the pita, but the bottom line is that everyone loves a pita,” Levy told me. “There are many new exciting things that can be done with a pita, and I think it should get the respect it deserves.”

Another upscale pita place called Dwini Pita-Bar just opened in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market. Dini Kasorla, who up until recently worked in the media, decided it was time for a career change and in the middle of September opened her very own pita place, which offers dishes either inside a pita (including red mullet, entrecôte, and osso bucco) or on an open pita, which becomes a sort of bruschetta.

And while various gourmet-pita stands are opening around the country, you don’t need to sit on the sidewalk or on barstools next to a busy counter to enjoy a high-end pita. There are even restaurants that incorporate pita dishes as specials in their menus. The aforementioned HaMeurav doesn’t exist anymore, but whoever misses its signature dish can still enjoy it at HaBasta, where it is sometimes served as a special.

Time will tell whether the gourmet-pita trend endures and which restaurants will stay alive. “Obviously a good idea or a gimmick are not enough—it also has to taste good,” said Laor. “And the ones that do are going to stay and prosper.”

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