Discover New York Neighbourhoods Through Food
New York is a city of neighbourhoods. Each pocket of the city has its own identity, culture, and inevitably, unique food. One of the best ways to get to know a culture is to get to know their food and one of the best ways to get to know the food when you’re travelling is to take a food tour. New York has so many identities and cultures that it’s pretty impossible to take a generic New York food tour so you need to focus on the neighbourhoods. On my recent quick visit to the Big Apple I focussed on Little Italy and Chinatown with Ahoy NY Tours & Tasting.
It was the perfect re-introduction to New York after two years away. The three hour tour started at 10:30am at a restaurant a 10 minute walk from my AirBnB room in the Lower East Side. I loved that I didn’t have to wake up super early and could enjoy the morning sunshine on my walk…except I got my address wrong and walked two blocks in the wrong direction and then had to hustle. Oops.
I met up with Mike, our friendly and capable guide who’d lead us through the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy with aplomb, despite having a broken toe. A real trooper that Mike. The rest of our group was just as plucky. Ahoy limits tours to 12 people so you don’t have to worry about getting lost or not being able to hear the stories. One of the things I love about doing group tours as a solo traveller is the chance to meet new people and share stories.
The tour started off in just about the best way: cannoli in a fifth generation Italian family-owned bakery. We followed that up with mozzarella balls wrapped in prosciutto from the oldest cheese store in America, now partly owned by one Tony Danza. They make 4,000 pounds of fresh mozzarella each day and what they don’t sell gets turned into all kinds of great next-day treats like smoked mozzarella, mozza sticks, and scamorza. The smell in the shop alone will make you want to open your wallet. This is the real Little Italy and I love it.
We next popped next door for gnocchi with a tomato sauce so delicious and sweet you’d swear there was sugar in it but it’s just the pure flavour of the tomatoes. We learned all about how the concept of “Italian food” is a relatively new one as Italy did not become a unified country until 1861. Before that it was a collection of regional ingredients and dishes. When many immigrants came to New York they held strongly to those regional ties to build their new community but slowly they came together to make a new community. And just like that northern gnocchi paired with a southern tomato, the result is more than the sum of its parts.
These history snippets are another one of the things I love about doing group tours. It’s one thing to grab a slice of delicious pizza in New York but you have more of an appreciation for it when you learn about the history of the neighbourhood you’re eating it in and even the history of the food itself. The Ahoy food tour made sure that I not only left with a belly full of food but a head full of knowledge.
We made another stop in Little Italy sampling cheese and olives before circling back near our starting point for a pizza tasting. And by tasting I really mean feast. Our group of 12 was served six brick oven cooked, thin crust pies! Despite their deliciousness, we just couldn’t finish them all, but we made a valiant effort.
Our pizza hunger satisfied we changed gears and headed off to Chinatown. After giving us the gruesome history of Doyers Street, the deadliest street in American history, Mike left us on The Bloody Angle while he went to get us treats from the popular dim sum restaurant on the street. Doyers Street is one of the few bendy streets in Manhattan. In fact, the short 200m street bends at almost a 90-degree angle and this geographical feature has made it a key part of New York gang history. Gang members could wait on one side and then attack their unsuspecting victims as they turned the corner, disappearing into underground tunnels attached to buildings on the street, leaving no trace.
In the shadow of this history we sampled egg rolls that give meaning to the word ‘extra’. I’m not sure I’d ever had an egg roll with actual egg in it before. We also got to try dumplings in a park, stopped to listen to some amateur musicians serenade us with traditional Chinese tunes, and spotted the cherry blossoms. For a hot second you could almost think you were in China. Mike dropped more history knowledge on us and we finished our tour with the divisive, but my personal fave find, sesame rice balls with a red bean paste filling.
I can’t think of a better way to spend three hours on a sunny spring morning than with a congenial group of strangers getting to know two of New York’s famous neighbourhoods through their food.
If you find yourself in New York be sure to look up Ahoy NY Tours and get yourself one of those delicious rice balls.