Pizza Hut Israel’s New Pizza Knafeh Is an Insult to the Arabic Pastry

Knafeh has been abused in every way imaginable. Pizza Hut Israel found a new one

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A Pizza Hut knafeh pizza in its box.
A Pizza Hut knafeh pizza in its box.Credit: Eran Laor
Eran Laor
Eran Laor
Eran Laor
Eran Laor

One evening last week, a 15-year-old from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan texted his mother, “I’m going out with friends.” To her obvious question – where, exactly – he replied just as naturally: “to eat knafeh.”

Two brief text messages, but with so many layers on which we could linger, all of them overlapping and intersecting under a single, astounding phenomenon.

‘Pizza Hut recognized the unrealized potential of this irresistible Middle Eastern food, and decided to make its own version’

For years, knafeh an “exotic” dessert for Israeli Jews, encountered only occasionally, like at the end of a meal at an Arab restaurant on the way to the north (after which you can’t stop talking about it on the way home).

But it has turned, almost overnight, into a national disaster, much worse than the torrent of arayes or the doner kebab fever that have swept over the country in recent years.

Although it wasn’t the first knafeh place to open, leading and setting the trend is Yaffa Knafeh, a stall in Jaffa that launched a little less than four years ago near the flea market.

At the time, it was something of a sensation: authentic knafeh, made with care but not expensive, tasty without being too much. The lines, the articles and Instagram tags were not long in coming, and in their wake dozens of knafeh places sprouted up throughout the country.

Many of them distanced themselves from the Arab original, both geographically and culinarily. An “underground” knafeh booth on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard? There’s one, or at least there used to be. Nutella knafeh? Check. Knafeh on a stick? Check. Vegan knafeh? Check. Knafeh doughnut? Check. Banana pancake knafeh? Knafeh shawarma? Not yet, but just wait.

No wonder, then, that two weeks ago Pizza Hut Israel announced, with great public relations fanfare, its new pizza-knafeh. There have been independent forays into this territory in the past (such as chef Erez Komarovsky’s short-lived venture, Levantina Pizza), but never one this ambitious and broad in scale.

“Pizza Hut recognized the unrealized potential of this irresistible Middle Eastern food, and decided to make its own version,” the festive press release trumpeted, “and the person who created this special pizza is the chain’s Vice President of Operations and Sales, Gilad Ventura, who began his career with us as a cook at one of our branches.” At least the company didn’t take credit for the idea itself.

The pizza is sold at Pizza Hut branches or by delivery in two sizes, personal (35 shekels, about $10) and family (80 shekels). Its base is the familiar Pizza Hut dough, topped with a mixture of cheeses – mozzarella, ricotta and Tzfat (a salty, semi-hard cheese originally made in Safed) – as well as some kadaif (finely shredded phyllo dough) and a bit of sugar syrup, and served with a small bag of ground pistachios on the side.

When I write “familiar” dough, you probably know what I mean. What does it say about Pizza Hut if that’s the first thing that comes to mind when its name is mentioned? Nothing good, probably.

A traditional knafeh with pistachio ice cream at Yaffa Knafeh, a stall in Jaffa.Credit: Gil Gutkin

In the knafeh version as well, you won’t be deprived of the full Pizza Hut experience: taking a slice of thick dough out of the pie, only to discover an oil slick that changes the color and texture of the cardboard and on the right day, seeps through the box onto the table.

Tackling this art installation takes a considerable amount of psychological repression, but if you chose Pizza Hut, that psychological mechanism likely kicked in when you made the order. Great, now you can eat.
Despite its location on the chain’s dessert menu, the knafeh pizza is not very sweet. That’s meant as a compliment, but it also works against it to some extent. The layer of cheese is generously proportioned, melted and stretchy, but its flavor remains basically neutral to very anemic.

The mozzarella and ricotta dominate; the Tzfat cheese, whose presence could have taken the affair to more intense and perhaps slightly salty places, is almost imperceptible.
Combined with the outsize proportion of dough and the small amount of sugar syrup, the result is less aggressive than expected, but also confusing. It is certainly not a pizza par excellence, thanks to the echoes of sweetness and absence of any other flavor.

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But it’s also not an actual dessert like standard knafeh. The ground pistachios – a traditional topping – are nice enough, but their quality isn’t high enough to provide additional depth of flavor.
At this point, a little bored, I let myself follow the principle that you can’t steal from a thief and commit an indecent act on a dish whose very existence is a vulgar crime against the magnificent traditional dessert. Although I didn’t order anything besides the knafeh, it came with the usual packets of spices that accompany the standard pizzas: chili flakes and the “house blend” (oregano, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and so on).

Light sprinkles on the remaining slices in the tray generated a surprising improvement, making each bite more interesting and complex: a little spicy, a little salty, but still a little sweet. No, it still wasn’t pizza.

And knafeh? It was never knafeh, anyway. So now you can turn with a clean conscience to the next abomination: the tortures visited on sufganiyot by high-end bakeries for Hanukkah this year.

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