Mohammed’s Old City Pizza
Almost 40 years ago, Benedetto was a young college student working in Israel for the summer when he stumbled upon Mohammed’s bakery.Cats wandered in and out at will, and characters appeared at all hours of the night, since he often baked while the rest of the neighborhood slept. It was the perfect place to eat, sit, and doze, while one waited for the buses to start running again if you had stayed out too late.
Situated in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, the one-room establishment helped locals who had no oven of their own.For a small fee, the Arab man would pop your tray into his wood-burning oven, baking your bread or casserole for home or business. On the side, he also made egg-and-cheese pizzas for around a dollar.
It was a unique process, this simple pizza.Mohammed slightly baked a pita bread until it began to puff and created a pocket. While still soft dough, he removed it from the oven, allowed it to cool, pushed down the dough and made a rim around the edges.
Onto this blank palette, he placed two triangles of The Laughing Cow cheese (La Vache Qui Rit), smearing it over the surface. Then he cracked one egg and scrambled it on top of the cheese, sprinkling in salt and pepper, and baking it. An entire meal in itself.
Now, decades later, I told my husband that we needed to take the children to see this august hole-in-the-wall institution.
“Nooo,” he scoffed, “Mohammed must be long gone. He was middle-aged 40 years ago.”
“My sources inform me that the place is still there–,” I started.
“Then it must be run by someone else,” he insisted.
Well, that’s how we happened to take Jerusalem’s Light Rail Line to the stop just outside the Damascus Gate, entering the Old City, and gingerly stepping past bedouin women sitting on the ground and selling bundles of mint, grape leaves, beets, and other sundries. Down, down, down the steps we walked until the pathway forked, and we took the way to the left, with another sharp left. These were the pedestrian alleyways of the Muslim Quarter.
There, before us and on the left stood the familiar Green Door Pizza Bakery on Sheikh Raihan Ascent. Dodging schoolchildren going home on lunchbreak, along with runaway pushcarts carrying vegetables, we stepped inside.
Everything was in the same place: the baker’s pit with oven, straight inside the door. But what was this? All had been modernized and upgraded within the past year or two, new stone walls and tile floors, even a couple of bonafide tables, a drink refrigerator with beverages. Gone were the black marks of smoke going up the dirty, white-domed walls. Teen boys still came and went with wooden trays full of items to bake.
And who was this? Mohammed himself, sitting off to the side, smoking under a “No Smoking” sign, rising to greet my husband in Arabic, who had come home with a tribe of his own following, and urging us to take a look around his renewed digs, no doubt dating from at least the Crusades, if not more. Benedetto could not believe the fact that the baker himself was still alive.
“He must be 89, 90 years old,” he mumbled under his breath, exchanging pleasantries, and ordering pizzas which were now 15 shekels, or about $4 each, but it may be more if you don’t speak Arabic, or have a tribe with you.
Mohammed’s son, Ali, who looked to be about 30, worked in the upgraded pit, a gas-and-wood pizza oven into which he slid items in and out, behind him. As many Arab men, Mohammed went by the name of his first son, Abu Ali (father of Ali) and showed his pride that his son had followed in the family business.
He had six sons, but one had died, now only five. One lived in South America, where he had bought a grocery store, and Mohammed would visit him next month. Another son lived in London, and after ten years of marriage, he and his wife had only one daughter.
He shook his head, “Only one daughter!” bemoaning the fact, admiring our teens.
Soon the pizzas were done, now served on wooden cutting boards, and cut into quarters. It was too late, but we realized we probably needed about half the pizzas we had ordered. Oh well, it would go to Mohammed’s travel fund.
As I chatted with him amidst mouthfuls of chewy pizza (which could have been cooked with tomato slices on top, but we declined), I discovered that Abu Ali was no octogenarian, but a mere two years older than my husband. The difference in their appearance was nothing short of amazing.
We took our leave, Mohammed urging us to bring him a chicken from the market and he would bake it for us, “no charge”. We took down his address which he dictated in rambling order, and promised to send him photos.
————Tags: a return to one's past, Abu Ali's Pizza on Sheikh Raihan's Ascent, ancient alleys of Jerusalem's Old City, ancient pizza place, egg-and-cheese pizza, family travel blog, Green Door Pizza Bakery in Jerusalem, Holy Land travel and food, Mohammed's Bakery in the Muslim Quarter