From Tripoli with Love

”Rafi warns us about eating too much bread. ‘I got a lot of food coming out, leave room…’ he says. He really cares, you know. You are guests in his kitchen. His kind of sincerity is impossible to fake.” A trip to Gueta, a kosher Israeli restaurant, left this writer savoring the tastes of Tripoli.

As much as I like going out to a fancy restaurant, eating 5 courses, and drinking expensive alcohol, I have to be honest and say that it takes second place to eating in a family restaurant, serving hot ethnic food, based on recipes that are kept “in the family” and which are perfected over time.

Gueta is such a place. Their motto is “Tripolitan dishes from the heart,” and that is as perfect a description for the restaurant as I can conceive. I went there for lunch with Michal, a friend and colleague. Upon entering, we were first greeted by the intoxicating aromas of food from the kitchen and then by Natalie, our nice and efficient server. The space is divided into 2 main sections – the main section which looks pleasant but standard and a small narrower section, which is covered in impressive wallpaper and lit with chandeliers. The kitchen is openly visible to both spaces.

Rafi, the owner, soon joined us and made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He’ll bring out from the kitchen whatever he thinks we will like and we, for our part, should just sit back and enjoy the food. “Don’t interfere and all will be well,” he said with a big smile across his face. Like I said, who could refuse? The food started to fill the table soon after. First the bread and spreads: pickled vegetables, pickled squash, tahini, and prickled lemon. Rafi warns us about eating too much bread. “I got a lot of food coming out, leave room…” he says. He really cares, you know. You are guests in his kitchen. His kind of sincerity is impossible to fake.

Then the first courses arrived: “Bastil” - potato croquettes with meat, chicken breast croquettes, and my personal favorite, the “mafrum” – potato slices stuffed with meat. This is a classic Tripolitan dish. Natalie described all the dishes to us, and instructed us on how to properly slice the mafrum.

Rafi handled all the main courses personally. He brought over a hot plate of couscous and bowls of beans and meat in red sauce (“tabcha bel camun”), beans and meat cooked with mangold leaves (“tabcha bel salak”), Chraime (fish in a spicy sauce), chicken with potatoes in special sauce (“tabcha bel tamatam”), and cooked vegetables for the couscous. Rafi advised on what to eat first based on which sauce was more dominate in spiciness. Being a fan of good spicy food, I wasted no time – I wanted to taste everything. Even Michal, whose palate is less forgiving to spicy foods than my own, left no dish untouched. Rafi took a seat and told us Gueta’s fascinating story.

Gueta’s tale begins 13 years ago when her owner decided he wanted to open a restaurant in Yafo. He dreamt big and the place reflected those dreams – first class establishment, clean and elegant d?cor, and good chefs in the kitchen. The endeavor failed.
This was followed by an Italian restaurant which went the way of her predecessor after only a year. A kosher dairy restaurant was up next. After a year in business it still showed no promise for success.

One day Rafi came into work and sent everyone home. He decided that it was time to sell the place for good, seeing as how he was steeped in debt. He put up a “for sale sign” and waited. There were no takers. He lived at his parents’ home, drove around on a scooter, and was scared of answering the phone, scared of the creditors. It was his low point.

Then one day when he was sitting in his mother’s kitchen, watching her cook and occasionally comforting him in the most Jewish of ways by saying “things will be fine,” he got an idea. Why not follow an old childhood dream and open a Tripolitan restaurant? After all, this was the food on which he grew up, his family’s food, the cuisine he knew and loved so well. His mother, upon hearing this suggestion ordered him to follow her instructions to the letter in regards to the way to go about this venture. Being a good son, he did what she asked. He went to the rabbinate and had the location certified as a kosher restau