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When dining out, never underestimate the importance of the atmosphere and the attitude around you.

For me, elaborate interior design or a menu’s font (yes, I know, it’s silly. But I’m a designer!) will automatically raise the dining experience for me before taking a single bite. A smile from the server, laughter at the next table over, or just friends who can assure you a stress-free hour of delicious food will leave me raving about my experience even if the chicken was slightly dry, or the dessert too sugary.

During my travels in the Middle East, I spent two nights in Jerusalem. While this in no way gives me the authority to claim the BEST Italian food in Jerusalem is at Al Dente, a quaint little storefront hidden away from City Center, it will forever go down as one of my favorite dining experiences. Ever.

Let’s start with the attitude. Because the meal actually started earlier that afternoon when Lizzie suggested we return to this Italian restaurant she’d been on a previous visit with her husband.  Touting it’s amazing homemade pastas, Al Dente sounded perfect. We just had to figure out where it was.

Armed only with our tourist map of City Center, and a street that Lizzie was ‘75% sure the restaurant is on,’ we took off in her car and on an adventure. After 30 minutes and who knows how many streets that were a mix of Hebrew, Russian, English, and more–we were lost. Our dinner companions, Liz’s father and grandmother, were sitting patiently in the back–but the group was getting restless. Each restaurant we passed looked more and more appealing to our hungry stomachs. But Liz was determined.

Suddenly—almost magically—I recognized the neighborhood we entered on the map. Finally back on a course, it took us another 15 minutes to navigate back until we came upon the street–and lo! there was the restaurant, tucked away next to an ally. If only there were a table ready for 4. Unfortunately, it’s a TINY restaurant (make reservations!) and while it was only 6:30, the place was packed.

Here’s again where attitude makes all the difference. Instead of grumbling about getting lost, or arguing about how cold it was as we waited outside, the group maintained it’s adventurous spirit. We chatted about the places we had visited that day and caught up on each other’s daily dramas. The waiter, instead of giving us attitude for being the dumb tourists who didn’t know to call ahead, was very apologetic and even brought us out hot tea and coffee when our table was taking longer than expected.

And it was worth the wait:

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup and focaccia
Truffled Tortellini with Ricotta filling
Green Pea gnocchi with a cream sauce
Pumpkin ‘Sushi’ Pasta roll

The atmosphere in this restaurant was amazing. Upon entering, there is a small closed porch with 4 tables (we sat in one by the corner). Inside, a long bench table took up the majority of space for a large party of family-style dining. Behind that, a quaint bar and the kitchen. Two waiters ran all the tables, and they were very patient with our English.

As you can see in the photos, the plates were all earth-tones that added to the heartiness of the meal. Of course I had to order Jerusalem Artichoke soup. And the Truffled Tortillini! Truffle oil, truffle flakes mixed in with cheese, and yet the dish wasn’t too rich or heavy. All the pasta is made the day of, so a few things weren’t on the menu by the time we ordered (it’s also why the place was packed so early) but everyone was really pleased with their meal.

Apple Mascapone Cheesecake & Lemon Tart

As we were contemplating dessert, a large group of French journalists entered. (I imagined they were journalists—they drank a lot, wore khaki vests, had weathered grey hair, and were, according to the waiter, regulars.)

While I’m not a fan of cheesecake, our waiter let us know that the French folks had already reserved every remaining piece of it—except for one. That was all we needed to know, and we snapped it up. And I’m still dreaming about it. So light, so perfect….I must figure out how to make it myself or move to Israel.

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