As a native New Yorker, I’ve spent many afternoons wandering the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy, stopping to get some dumplings or some pasta and wine. While I had always kind of thought of these places as tourist hubs with delicious food, I never realized just how much history belongs to these areas, and how much of this history is still alive today.
After going on a walking tour with Ahoy New York Tours and Tasting, I now look at Chinatown and Little Italy with a new appreciation. Alana, the tour guide, led the group through each area, speaking about how the regions came to be and letting everyone sample from historical eateries.
As Alana likes to say, “If a restaurant has been around for 40 years or more, you know it’s good because it has stood the test of time.”
Around the time of the United States‘ Industrial Revolution, southern Italians began coming over to get away from high taxes and low wages. In order to help ease their culture shock they began importing foods from their homeland and opening restaurants that reflected their heritage. Lucky for us, a lot of what was created back then is still around today.The first stop on the tour was Alleva Dairy to sample prosciutto and homemade mozzarella. Opened in 1892 by the same family that runs it now, this is the oldest Italian cheese shop in America. Fun Fact: Mozzarella originated in Naples, Italy, when a monk accidentally dropped a cheese curd into a pail of hot water.
Ferrara Bakery & Cafe was the next stop, where the group got to taste their world famous cannolis. My grandmother, who is from southern Italy, actually used to swear by these, and my father still refuses to eat cannolis from any other bakery. This eatery was opened in 1892, and during WWII many Italian families would purchase Torrone, a nougat confection, from here to send to their loved ones who were fighting because the treat wouldn’t spoil.
After our sugar indulgence, the group traveled to another continent and headed over to New York’s Chinatown. People first started to notice the Chinese coming into the United States in the 1840’s. While they first tried to settle in California, they were not socially accepted there and so they came to New York in an attempt to better assimilate. While the original Chinatown was made up of only 3 streets (Mott, Doyers, and Pell) and consisted of mostly immigrants from southern China, today the area has grown to encompass 2 square miles and 200,000 Chinese-Americans from diverse backgrounds.
A family-style lunch at Pongrsi Thai Restaurant, the oldest family-run and operated Thai restaurant in New York City, allowed the group to sample 40 years of delicious hard work with rice, Orange Chicken, Pad see ew, and a spicy Chicken Pra Ramm.
In order to let the group digest, Alana took us to visit Columbus Park, a cultural hub for the Asian community where people go to play Mahjong and checkers, practice Tai Chi, and relax. Standing there today, you would never know that the area was once considered the worst slum in the history of the U.S., and possibly even the world.
No tour of Chinatown would be complete without eating some dumplings. What many people don’t realize is that dumplings aren’t just delicious, they’re an important part of the Chinese New Year as they symbolize wealth with their ancient silver and gold ingot shape. If you’re looking for taste, try Tasty Dumpling on 54 Mulberry Street. However, if you want a front-row view of how they are made, go to Fried Dumpling on 106 Mosco Street. Hint: It’s actually a lot more complex than you probably think.
To end the tour, the group was taken to a place that isn’t known for its history but for its flavor. Everything Frosted sells cupcakes with an Asian flair with choices like Lychee, Red Bean, Jasmine Tea, and Black Sesame.
While the tour tells a lot about food and its historical significance, you will also see a lot of other notable points of interest, such as the Transfiguration Church, which services the most Chinese-Americans than any other church in U.S., the former Bloody Angle, which is said to be where the most murders in America have ever occurred, and the oldest tenement building in New York at 65 Mott Street.
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