A food and cultural walking tour through Chinatown and Little Italy (New York)
May 25, 2014
Many people take food tours while visiting new cities. When I was invited to take a culinary tour through Chinatown and Little Italy in New York City, however, I wondered what I could possibly taste or see that I hadn’t experienced a thousand times. Having lived in Brooklyn for ten years just a few stops away from Chinatown on the J-train, meant that I had relied on the neighborhood for tasty dim sum meals with friends on countless occasions.
While I love Chinatown in spring, autumn and winter, I’ve never really enjoyed the mobs of camera-toting tourists and fishy smell that wafts through the neighborhood on hot, summer days. I wondered if a food tour with a mob of tourists would turn me into a raving lunatic, the poster-child of New York rudeness. In addition, since moving to New York, I’ve steered clear of Little Italy, a small neighborhood that not only seemed to serve cheap, inauthentic Italian food to unsuspecting tourists, but didn’t seem to actually have Italians living in the neighborhood.
Despite my reservations, I signed on for the tour, inviting my friend, Tom, a fellow New Yorker who spent some time living (and eating!) in China. The two of us met Alana, the owner of New York City Food Tours, on a sweltering 92 degree morning outside the Kam Man Grocery Store on Canal Street, right in the thick of Chinatown.
Other participants arrived: a couple from Detroit, a college kid living in Connecticut, another couple from Westchester. In total, our merry band of foodies equaled 12. At 10:30, Alana clapped her hands to get our attention and led us off Canal and onto Mulberry Street in the direction of Little Italy.
Although only 50 Italians actually still live in Little Italy, my assumption that there weren’t any authentic Italian establishments was dead wrong. Alana told us a bit about the history of the area. The unification of Italy in 1861 and the subsequent Industrial Revolution in the early 1900’s brought Italian immigrants to Ellis Island in droves, many of them bringing foods from their homeland and family recipes that permeated into the proverbial New York melting pot. Our first two stops on the tour, Alleva Dairy and Di Palo’s Fine Foods, have each been run by four generations of two Italian families, serving the community for over 100 years. While Europeans might not consider a century to be a long time, Alana explained that in the immigrant-fed new New World, one hundred years completely changes a neighborhood.
I once went to Spain just to try the country's famous prosciutto, and I felt a little silly that in all my years in New York, I hadn't ventured to Little Italy to try Alleva's San Daniele sea-salt cured or Parma prosciutto imported from Italy. Paired with a bit of in-house fresh mozzarella, I made a mental note to return in order to fill my larder.
The cheese-orgy continued at Di Palo’s, where we tried two more cheeses: a cow’s milk Piave; and a sheep’s milk Moliterno, which, with a perfect creamy mouth-feel and light salt could quite possibly be my new favorite cheese.
Walking on, we entered Grand Appetito, where we munched on slices of a Margherita pizza called ‘Grandma’s Pie’. While the restaurant was only established in 2012, the Palermo-born proprietors stick to Old World methods, even importing their tomatoes from Italy and making their own mozzarella.
It was about this time, as we left Grand Appetito’s, that I started to feel real love for Little Italy. As Alana peppered her conversation of food with the history of various gangsters such as Crazy Joe Gallo, who had been shot and killed outside of a local establishment, I realized I was not hooked on Little Italy, but I had become a camera-toting, window-gawking tourist in my own city.
Our next stop on the tour, to Ferrara’s Bakery & Cafe, where we were each served a fresh cannoli, elicited oohs and ahhhs from each member of our party. Cannolis, a crispy tube filled with ricotta, lemon zest and chocolate chips, is a traditional Sicilian dessert. As we devoured our treats, Alana waved her hand in the air and quoted a famous line from the Godfather: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli!”
Sugar rushing to my brain, Alana led us the opposite direction down Mulberry Street, back into Chinatown. After stopping briefly at a fruit stand, where we examined various strange fruits including the infamously sweet and slightly rancid-tasting Durian, we sat down for a small meal at Pongrsi Thai Restaurant.
Pongrsi is the oldest Thai restaurant in New York, having operated for over 40 years. Although visiting the establishment helps show that Chinatown isn’t only filled with Chinese restaurants and shops, but a variety of Asian cultures and cuisines, this was the only stop on the tour where I was left wanting. Alana had brought up more than a few times that it was the dim sum that made dining in Chinatown famous. Given my love for the fare, and the fact that the collection of small dishes have been popular in New York since the mid-late 1800’s, I would’ve loved to have try Alana’s favorite dim sum restaurant. That said, I can't fault Pongrsi for not being a dim sum restaurant, and I did enjoy the restaurant's vegetable phat si io and chicken parong.
Sufficiently fed, hydrated, and relaxed, we made our way back out into the heat to stop at Columbus Park, a charming oasis filled with mahjong players and elderly Cantonese immigrants pulling their bows over erhus. Seated on benches across the street from one of the oldest tenement houses in New York, we ate pork and chive dumplings from Tasty Dumpling (located between Bayard and Mosco Streets) while Alana regaled us with stories of an older, dirtier, city where tenement inhabitants bathed only once a week and shared outhouses with a multitude of neighbors. Sitting in Columbus Park, which used to be a swamp area over which only the poorest New York inhabitants lived, I took a moment to appreciate modern plumbing and bathrooms.
Alana saved the best stop on our tour for last. Still licking our fingers after eating our dumplings, we walked onto Doyers Street, known as the “crookedest street in New York," filed past a couple of basement restaurants, and paused in front of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum restaurant in New York (since 1920).
Alana ducked briefly into Nom Wah and exited with containers of eggrolls. Crispy and filled with vegetables and a thin layer of eggy deliciousness, I tossed mine like a hot potato between my burned fingers and without letting it cool, devoured it as quickly as I could. I swooned. I moaned. I eyeballed Tom - lucky for him, he’s bigger and stronger than I am, or else I would’ve swiped his eggroll from his fingers.
I had enjoyed the stories Alana had shared with us in Little Italy, but they didn't compare to the ones she told us while eating our eggrolls. The corner where we stood, known as the "Bloody Angle," was once the location where more murders took place than any other place in America. The narrowness and curves of the street, tunnels that connected all of the buildings, and rival Chinese gangs that used hatchets rather than guns, fueled my fantasies about some of New York City's darker days.
After the tour I headed back to Brooklyn feeling satiated and better informed about my city. Thanks Alana!