Best of New York City: Eating Our Way Through Chinatown & Little Italy

Sausages at Alleva Dairy, 
the oldest Italian cheese store in the U.S.

Guys! So remember how one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 was to seek out what’s special about living in Manhattan and celebrate it? Well, earlier this month, Dan and I did just that. We went on a food tasting and walking tour through Chinatown and Little Italy with Ahoy New York Tours & Tasting. Of course, there are lots of New York tours to choose from, but this one really fit the bill for us: we basically ate our way through these two very famous neighborhoods, with a fabulous guide tossing in lots of interesting historical tidbits along the way.


As two vegetarians, we were a little nervous that there would be lots of meat-eating on this tour, but I have to say, the food offerings felt really well-balanced. (Plus it helps that Dan and I have a “cured meats” rule: we both love classic Italian staples like salami and prosciutto, and it just so happened that our very first stop on the tour included a tasting of fresh mozzarella and prosciutto from America’s oldest Italian cheese store: Alleva Dairy. Heck yes. In fact, it was so delicious that we ate it before I could get a picture of it. Alas. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

^^ The tour guide, Alana, was so passionate about not only the food, but also the amazing history behind the shops and the neighborhoods. Little Italy used to be much bigger than it is now – these days the whole neighborhood is mostly a few connecting streets with Italian restaurants that cater to tourists, so it takes some work to sniff out the real, authentic shops. DiPalo’s Fine Foods has been around for over 100 years, and is still family-owned and operated. In fact, the owners travel to Italy constantly to ensure the authenticity of the products they sell – like this gigantic wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which beckons me with its sweet, sweet siren call: “cheese . . . mmm . . . cheese.”

^^ Not every shop we visited has been around for a century. In fact, our third stop was Grand Apetito, a little pizza shop that only opened a couple of years ago. You might be thinking, “Pizza? On a food tour? Really?!” And I would have to thought-admonish you, “Yes, silly reader. Really.” Because it is literally the best piece of pizza I have ever eaten – and as a life-long New Yorker and someone with Italian ancestry who grew up in the Bronx, I have eaten more pizza than someone my size should ever consume. The owner calls this “Grandma’s Pie;” it’s a twice-baked Margherita pizza with a special pesto sauce that sent everyone on the tour into raptures.

^^ We concluded the Little Italy section of the tour at Ferrara’s, a famous bakery and cafe known for their cannolis. I tell you, there is nothing like a crispy tube filled with ricotta cheese and chocolate chips to make your life a little brighter. 

^^ Our first stop on the Chinatown portion was actually a Thai restaurant called Pongsri. Now, I LOVE Thai food but it’s really easy for me to get caught up in the sheer vastness of their menu, so I’ll always end up with that old standby, pad thai. We tried a sampling of a few dishes, and I love the flavor combinations of Thai cuisine. Coconut, peanut sauce, stir-fried veggies . . . it’s all good, baby. It was also really thoughtful of Alana and the Ahoy team to have this sit-down in the middle of the tour – we went on what happened to be a really cold day, so it was great to warm up indoors! 

^^ This is Doyers Street in Chinatown. It’s only one block long with a sharp bend in the middle, and was once known as “The Bloody Angle.” From the early 1900s to the 1930s, the Tong gangs shot their enemies here. In fact, hatchets were often thrown at targets from rooftops, which gave rise to the term “hatchet man.” Police said that more people died at The Bloody Angle than any other street intersection in the entire United States. Today, it’s mostly barber shops and hair salons. I love that you can see the water barrel and the Chinese lamp-post at the top of the photo – and that all of the signs are in Chinese characters. Isn’t it colorful?

^^ Our last stop was at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest Dim Sum restaurant in Chinatown. We tried their Original Egg Roll which was approximately 1,000 times fresher and tastier than the egg roll that comes with your average Chinese takeout order. Nom Wah has been around since the 1920s, when it was originally a Chinese bakery. I love that they’ve kept the mid-century dining area intact, with furniture and flooring that’s completely original to the era. It was early on a Saturday afternoon when we were there, and let me tell you, it was HOPPING. The place was jammed with people, so Dan and I are planning on going back to have a proper sit-down meal there one of these days. Also, you know a place has legit NYC credibility when Woody Allen’s a regular. (His photo is on the wall! :D)

Overall, the tour was just over three hours and we felt full afterwards – not that grotesque, I’ve-eaten-my-weight-in-cheese-and-now-I-want-to-die kind of full, but the kind of satisfaction that comes after having eaten well. The selections were thoughtful and the portions were generous without being overwhelming. I definitely recommend bringing a bottle or two of water, and being prepared for all kinds of weather! We got lucky with sunshine, but the cold had me wishing that I’d worn a second pair of socks. 

Alana is unbelievably knowledgeable about the food and the area, and was even kind enough to send an email to the group afterwards with the titles of the books she mentioned throughout the tour. It was also great that the tour had only eight people or so – the group felt cozy, and it was so much easier to move about without stragglers dawdling and slowing everything down. It’s also great that they include a map of the places you’ve been, as well as other restaurants and shops they recommend so that you can go back and shop afterwards! I definitely recommend the tour to both visitors to NYC and locals looking for something fun and different to do. 

Thanks so much for a fantastic time, Ahoy! 

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