Restaurant Review: Sbarro's in Jerusalem's City Center

February 25, 2007

I first became acquainted with Sbarro's a quarter of a century ago when I lived in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn with my first wife. It was located on 86th Street where the "B" train runs on an "el" in the Italian section of the neighborhood. It looked like a typical salumeria (sausage shop) with salamis and various other treif (non-kosher food) hanging down from the ceiling. They sold hero sandwiches and the like, lunches for the Italian working classes of Bensonhurst. We never ate there - period.

I next became familiar with Sbarro's after the marriage to my first wife fell apart and I was living in the streets of Saint Paul. I had managed to secure a bed in a Catholic shelter (the Jews run no homeless shelters in St. Paul or Minneapolis- a different, far less pleasant story) and had made friends with a fellow from Wisconsin named Dan Ehmke who, like the shelter, was Catholic. I had finally managed to secure temporary employment with the State of Minnesota (for just a little over minimum wage) and, since I had no real expenses, my bank account was beginning to fill up.

I first got rid of the trappings of living on the streets was when I got my first check from the Minnesota Department of Administration. The bank was closed and I wanted to celebrate. Dan Ehmke's "banker" was Jim Flaherty, the beefy ex-marine of an Irishman who owned Flaherty's just off East Seventh Street. Jim Flaherty cashed my check and I bought a few beers. Those few beers at Flaherty's bar in the summer of 1983 were the absolute closest I came to inebriation in my entire life. Even half drunk, I realized that alcohol on my breath would cost me my room at the Catholic shelter. I did not want to sleep in the bus station or the flea and cockroach and infested Union Gospel Mission (the main Protestant homeless shelter in Saint Paul). So I dragged Dan out of his favorite haunt and the two of us stumbled down Seventh Street toward downtown where there was a Burger King. There I ate two double whoppers and regained my sobriety. After the whoppers we cut back to the Catholic shelter via what was then a prosperous commercial building with a large food court. Passing though the food court I saw Sbarro's - and the sign that really caught my eye - "All the pizza you can eat for three dollars every Wednesday".

After that, every Wednesday the two of us pigged out at Sbarro's. We ignored the charitable dinner handed out to the rest of the bums at the Catholic shelter; we avoided their grace over meals. We didn't stand in line to pay with our dignity for what was called free food. Instead we paid with our own money and ate in style.

Inside the restaurant, the sausages hanging from the ceiling were still there, but they were all artificial. Sbarro's had made itself over into a pizza shop and mall inhabitant and had lost much of the distinctive Italian flavor it had had in Brooklyn. But the pizza was still much better than most of the pizza obtainable in Saint Paul. And ten slices of pizza (we couldn't stuff ourselves with more) for $6.00 dollars (plus tax) was a deal not to be avoided. Finally, it gave me a chance to brag about the superiority of food from New York. After Labor Day the sale at Sbarro's ended. Dan Ehmke and I found a different hang out.

A short time after Adina married me in 1988, Dan Ehmke died in a car accident. He's watching as I write this story now. This brings us to Sbarro's in Jerusalem. Now of course, everyone knows how an Arab blew himself up at this restaurant and killed some twenty people in the process. And those who have followed the news know that Sbarro's made a big stink about rebuilding their restaurant on the corner of King George V Street and the Jaffa Road. What did not make the news was that a week or two ago my oldest son got stuck in an elevator at the Absorption Center. A young Iranian girl found him two worry-filled hours later and in our gratitude, we treated her to dinner at Sbarro's.

Immediately after Shabbat ended, we took the bus downtown and there it was, complete with guard at the door. Inside is a large sign in Hebrew stating how Sbarro's is with the Israeli people. Also there is a small electric memorial light burning for those killed in the terrorist attack. There are no artificial sausages hanging from the wall. Any signs of the salumeria I saw twenty five years ago in Bensonhurst are gone. There is a big sign saying that the restaurant is kosher. But it is kosher dairy. Meat is verboten.

As I remembered the delicious pizzas I gulped down in Saint Paul eighteen years ago, my mouth watered with anticipation. It took more than a few minutes for the slices of pizza to arrive at the table. When they did, it was disappointment city. The pizza, which was very expensive, was not hot but greasy and oily. It just didn't have the kick that New York pizza has and I can't imagine any respectable Italian from Boston (Sbarro's originated in Boston) liking this stuff. But that wasn't the worst part, though it should have been. When Shimon had to go to the bathroom he was faced with a one shekel (23˘) charge. You would think that a restaurant that charges its patrons to go to its bathroom would have a clean roomy facility complete with soap and towels. There was no soap and no hot water. When Adina went to the bathroom, there was no toilet paper - not even the cheapest kind - and there was water all over the floor. Dan Ehmke was probably having one hell of a laugh from his place Upstairs watching this. In my tortured Hebrew (we had been in Israel only one month) I wrote a note to the manager complaining of the conditions in the restaurant.

So the moral of the story - a bomb attack and international publicity do not, in and of themselves, improve the quality of food in an establishment. If you ever come to Israel to visit us, the pizza shops on Ben Yehuda serve better pizza for less. And do come and visit!

Epilogue: This was written originally in October 2001. Since then, Sbarro's has had to move from its roost on the corner of King George and the Jaffa Road to more modest quarters down the Jaffa Road a few doors away from Zion Square. I have not seen fit to revisit the restaurant, and have lots less money now than I did in October 2001. Additionally, after suffering a heart attack, pizza does not have the attraction for me that it once did. So it is unlikely that I will give them a second chance. But I do hope they have learned to stock a bathroom better...

Ruvy, born in New York, moved to Minnesota where he managed a Burger King and wrote stories. In addition to writing for Blogcritics Magazine, he is editor for the Root & Branch Information Service. Formerly living in Jerusalem, he lives with his family in Ma'alé Levoná where he is a freelance editor and writer.
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Deepti Lamba
February 25, 2007
12:43 PM

Ruvy, your tale reminds me of a bomb blast that took place in a famous cheap Delhi restaurant called Roshan Ki Kulfi where a young soon to be bride died.

The blast took place early afternoon, by night they cleaned up the place and next morning it was business as usual.

Its an old memory but still is fresh in my mind.

Another memory more vivid happened was when I was barely eight or nine and terrorism was at its height. We were on our way back from the hills and stopped at a road side dhaba (restaurant) for food late into the night. There were six guys with guns and very mean expressions.

They gave us a look over and continued eating. My dad was quite tensed and we kids for once eat without creating any noise knowing that something was very wrong.

It was only after they finished their meal and left did the manager come over to take our order. He was visibly shaken and told my dad not to put his family at risk by driving through Chandigarh at night but to spend the night at a nearby hotel.

All my dad said was - Where they?

And the manager replied - What do you think?

We spent the night at the nearby hotel and my parents were remained quiet the way back home.

Ruvy in Jerusalem
February 25, 2007
03:03 PM


What you describe sounds a lot more like the scenes one might see in movies like "The Godfather," even though, obviously, they occurred in real life - very real life.

After the bombing of Sbarro's lots of people did not want to enter its doors at all, one of the reasons it had to move from it choice location at the corner of King George V Street and the Jaffa Road to more modest quarters down the Jaffa Road.

My wife and I have walked away from a bomb blast or two here. G-d has watched over us. Perhaps, we were too stupid to watch over ourselves, just damned lucky - or perhaps it was not our time yet...

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