Milk, Honey, Pizza

Location: The Muslim Quarter, Jerusalem.
Getting There: From the Damascus Gate, make the first left off El Wad.
Telephone: 02-627-6171
Hours: Fluctuates depending on business. On busy days -- en Shala, Mr. Ali says (Arabic for "G-d willing") -- 7 a.m. to midnight. On slow days, he closes as early as 6 p.m.

Do the time warp: Abu Ali greets visitors to Green Door Pizza from his "pizza pit." After cooking an egg-and-cheese pizza, Mr. Ali coats it with uncooked tomatoes just before serving it.

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SELTZERBOY .::. Let's say you've just traveled 5,600 miles, becoming the first person in your family in 2,000 years (give or take a few hundred) to return to your homeland. Would grabbing a pizza be on your mind? It wasn't on mine, either. Alas, duty calls.

We all eat pizza on the road. Not just to see how it measures up; we like to be reminded of home. But this wasn't one of those trips. Surrounded by the beauty and vibrancy of Israel, I never felt like I wasn't home. So I waited until home took its weekly vacation -- on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, Jerusalem grinds to a halt -- to explore the local pizza trade. The only place to do that on Shabbat is the Old City. Aside from the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, life there beats as usual.

Holy land: A view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City. The Dome of the Rock, Islam's third-holiest site, was built in 691 C.E. Below it is the Western Wall, the only surviving portion of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.; it is Judaism's holiest site.

Old City is the part of Jerusalem that dates 4,000 years and draws religious pilgrims and curiosity seekers from around the world. It's easy to get lost amid the narrow streets and alleys, each filled with a different story from the city's compelling past. Following the action in this one-square-kilometer town, it's little wonder I ended up deep in the Muslim Quarter -- the largest and liveliest section of the walled city. What's surprising is that with nary a tourist following me, I ended up eating something called Arabic pizza. Much of Old City involves visiting ancient places; in the Muslim Quarter, even everyday life looks probably just as it did when the Ottomans ruled. Except that for most of the Ottoman Empire, pizza didn't even exist.

Not far from the Damascus Gate, Green Door Pizza is a respite from the bustle. Whereas all the action in the Muslim Quarter takes place on the street ("streets" are about 10 feet wide), the Green Door does its business in an actual sit-down restaurant. It's near the intersection of El Wad and Suq Khan ez-Zeit, but good luck finding any street signs. Most outsiders just call this the Arab shuk, using the Hebrew word for "market." You'll know you've found the right place when you see its large green doors, unmistakable amid the seemingly endless paths of stone.

20060602PiePitVertDown a few steps are a few mismatched plastic tables and chairs. As I enter, an elderly man is eating a whole fish from a frying pan at the table nearest the door. From the next table, two middle-aged men look up with large smiles. "Welcome," an Arabic-accented voice says from the back. "Come." It is Abu Ali, standing ten feet back from the entrance -- and three feet down. Mr. Ali, who runs the Green Door, works from a three-foot-cube "pizza pit." In the hollow with him is a wood-fired oven (powered by a combination of olive wood and lemon wood); the oven's opening and Mr. Ali's waist are level with the restaurant floor. Talk about working in the trenches.

Mr. Ali's workspace is his customers' floor space, with horizontal wooden crates filled with the day's dough rounds stacked on one side of his cubby. The other side, where Mr. Ali prepares the pizzas, has a few stacked cartons of eggs and stainless steel containers of tomato sauce, grated Parmesan, and mystery meat. In front is his pizza stone, the base of which is six inches wide by two feet long.

The Green Door sells only whole pizzas, but pie isn't really an apt term. Each is a nine-inch-diameter round. The crust is about one-half inch thick, but the circumference is an inch or so high, creating a well in the center. Across that well, Mr. Ali scatters a layer of grated cheese. Atop that, he cracks an egg, beats it moderately, and spreads it over the cheese. He offers a "cow meat" topping; I politely decline. While my pizza cooks, a young affiliate walks in with a sack of shelled chickpeas. Mr. Ali spreads them out on his now-empty crate, and cooks them in the oven. After ten minutes, Mr. Ali removes my pizza-cum-omelet from the oven. On it, he spreads an uneven layer of his room-temperature tomato topping, which is thicker than a sauce but thinner than a paste. He cuts the pizza into four slices with a knife. "Welcome," he says, summoning me to fetch my pizza, which I carry back on a rectangular piece of parchment paper. No forks. No knives. No napkins.

Between cigarettes, a patron retrieves some jalapeños from a refrigerated case, and brings them to my small table. "For you, my friend," he says. The gruff, antisocial twenty-something sitting across from me ate a few, having just finished two mystery-meat pizzas. I didn't want to spoil what was left of my appetite. I did that by actually eating the pizza. Never thought I'd long for corporate pizza. But then I received my dessert: two handfuls of those roasted chickpeas, the rest of which would be returned to their sack and sold in the shuk.

The Green Door, which feels more like an unfinished basement, has been in Mr. Ali's family for 60 years (his father started the business). And everyone who walks in becomes a part of Mr. Ali's extended family. After the few patrons depart, Mr. Ali comes to my table, dripping with sweat, with two shot-glass-size cups of Arabic coffee. (So much for heartburn.) We chat for another 20 minutes about life in the Muslim Quarter, where Mr. Ali has lived all of his 68 years. Mr. Ali notified me that the most intense coffee of my life was on the house. The pizza was ten shekels (about $2.25). I considered giving Mr. Ali one of Slice's custom "I love pizza" pins, but the only ones with me were in Hebrew and Yiddish. (Mr. Ali speaks some Hebrew, but Arabic is his lingua franca; both are Israel's official languages. Israel has as many Yiddish speakers as Iraq does trained soldiers.) And I doubt Mr. Ali knows much about the Internet, let alone the Slice-Gothamist Pizza Night, at which the pins made their debut. I'll bring some Arabic pins with me on next year's pilgrimage, when Slice readers near and far are welcome to join me for the most far-flung Slice Pizza Club to date.

The Green Door's pizza may not sound appetizing, and the actual taste is much worse. A week after returning to New York, I visited Di Fara for an override. And I couldn't help but think that, while Mr. Ali and Domenico DeMarco may be 5,600 miles apart in their pizza skills, their establishments have a similar aura: spare surroundings, colorful characters, and a desire to watch the pizzaiolo's every move (albeit for completely different reasons). For cultural curiosity alone, it's worth taking a breather from the array of fantastic food choices throughout the holy land and stopping at the Green Door.

As one might expect, after this lunch, it was tough to think about eating more pizza. In Tel Aviv, the pulse of modern-day Israel, several potentially passable choices dot the café society. (Imagine New York with pomegranate trees, a beautiful Mediterranean beachfront, and Jewish people.) But I decided to take the old saw about being in Rome and apply it to a land once occupied by the Romans. When Israelis come to New York, surely they aren't preoccupied with finding our inferior versions of falafel and schwarma, the street foods of choice in the Middle East.

Falafel stands are as plentiful in Israel as hot dog carts are in New York. The difference being that falafel stands are fantastic -- and their fare runs about ten shekels, less expensive than a pair of dirty-water dogs. I haven't been able to develop a discerning taste for falafel yet, but I'm wondering which place is the Di Fara of the falafel world. When I make aliyah, perhaps I'll send dispatches overseas via a falafel blog. The blog's name will be left to King Kubs, who has a knack for such things.

Yes, blog entries are supposed to be short and sweet. But this diatribe could have been much longer. Let's hope it fits the news hole. Israel is not just another distant spot on the globe. It's the center of it, and part of me is still there. Calling it the Promised Land is no empty cliché.

MUDDY, WATERS: Seltzerboy coats himself in mud before floating in the Dead Sea. The salt-filled sea, which is more than 1,300 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on earth.

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