Eating historically in New York’s Chinatown and Little Italy

little italy 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 StatesIndustrial 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.cannolis 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.

orange chicken chinatown 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.

everything frostedTo 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.

For more information or to make a booking with Ahoy NY Tours & Tasting, click here.

New York City bargain destination perfect for a 3-day weekend

New York City may be the most expensive place to live, but if you like to walk; it’s a bargain to visit. Arrive by Friday late afternoon, and by Sunday evening you can knock off most of the must see places and eat without spending much money. By the end, you’ll know a good bit of what makes this city so grand.

I recently tested out this method with a friend of my daughter’s who is a high school exchange student from Germany. She wanted to see New York and I’m always up for a trip. We did stay with my brother, but I do have two budget hotel suggestions that have been used by people I know.

When going to New York, have a point of orientation. Mine is Union Square located at East 14th Street and Broadway. Union Square is a hub where the subway station below ground offers trains in every direction and the park above is a gathering place of street vendors, a community farmers market and people out for a stroll depending upon the season and the day. In December, there’s a wonderful holiday market with creative, high quality items from around the world.

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This is where we began our New York jaunt on a Friday morning about 10 a.m. after arriving at LaGuardia from Columbus in time for the first bus into Manhattan. (The shuttle bus from LaGuardia drops passengers outside Grand Central Station. We took the #6 subway downtown to the Union Square stop. The roundtrip bus ticket is $21,)

Day 1

From Union Square, after dropping our things at my brother’s), we walked down Broadway to Ground Zero, a place I had been avoiding ever since September 11. The walk led us through Washington Square Park, New York University and the gallery district of SoHo. Along the way, we window shopped and admired the architecture. The American Thread Company, 260 W. Broadway is one that caught our eye in particular. The building gave me a chance to point out the city’s industrial past and imagine life in NYC during the late 1900s.

Ground Zero is now a bustling construction site where it’s possible to peek through the fence to see the progress of the new girders. Along the outside fence are building plans. As devastating as the area feels, there’s also a sense of renewal and hope.

The other World Trade Center buildings are still bustling with commerce. The 3 World Financial Center-American Express Building is a wonderful mix of office building and shopping mall. With Christmas approaching, Santa was busy listening to children’s wish lists. I couldn’t help notice how the holiday lights, poinsettias and Christmas tree inside the building inside were such a contrast to what occurred outside eight years ago. From the top of the steps in the atrium, there’s an excellent view of the construction site.

The American Express building also has a small display of the history of American Express. I particularly enjoyed the brochures that were developed to entice people to travel to far off places. On the second floor, above where the museum is located, notice the four murals. Each is of a major city in one part of the world. Venice, Istanbul and Rio De Janeiro are three of them. I think the 4th is Hong Kong. The title plate was behind a barrier so we couldn’t read it. People who work in the building who I asked about the mural didn’t know either.

From here we walked along the river to Battery Park where we purchased tickets to Liberty and Ellis Island. The walk on this end of Manhattan will take you by lovely apartment buildings and public spaces. Of note is the right before you arrive at the ferry terminal for the Statue of Liberty. There is construction site fencing around most of it, but the quotes from famous people added uplift to the day.

After a short wait, we were on an early afternoon ferry headed for the Statue of Liberty. The $12 ticket purchased at the booth operated by the National Park Service covers the ferry ride to Liberty Island and Ellis Island which includes the museum. We arrived at Liberty Island with enough time to walk around Lady Liberty and spend a few minutes in the gift shop before taking the next ferry to Ellis Island.

By this time we were starved, so after seeing the free movie about the history of Ellis Island’s past as the gateway for immigrants, we bought lunch at the café. A bowl of chicken soup cost $4.50.

By 4:00 p.m. we were back in Manhattan heading to Union Square to meet up with my dad and my brother, then off to the Museum of Modern Art-MOMA. On Fridays from 4:00-8:00, the museum is free. To get from 2nd Ave. and 14th Street, two blocks from Union Square, we took a taxi–$17 including a tip.

From MOMA it’s a short walk down 5th Avenue to Rockefeller Center and across the street from there is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. During Christmas, be prepared to be jostled a bit while you look at the center’s Christmas tree and watch the ice skaters. Give skating a pass. It is not budget travel.

Next stop, back to Union Square via subway where we headed to Chat ‘NChew, 10 East 16th St. for a late dinner. Chat ‘NChew’s specialty is comfort food. I ate the red beans and rice-a dish under $5.

Day 2

First stop, Union Square’s holiday craft bazaar where I bought non-alcoholic glugg for $2.50 before we headed to the School of Visual Arts Gallery via subway which took us to Chelsea. The walk was the chance to see the transition from a working class neighborhood to a warehouse district that has been changed to gallery spaces.

From there we walked to the Empire State Building on 34th Street, passing Madison Square Gardens and Penn Station along the way.

Before getting in line for our tickets to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, we ducked across the street to buy a slice of NY style pizza for $3.50. I had the spinach and feta cheese variety. When I forked over the $20 admission to the Empire State building, I swallowed the ticket price by seeing it as a contribution to preserving American history. The Art Deco architectural details are splendid.

We were blessed with a clear night so I was able to point out various buildings and bridges. Look for Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. The Chrysler Building is obvious.

Next was a walk past the Macy’s windows decked out for Christmas on our way to Times Square and Broadway. As always, there’s a surprise on some corner in New York. The biggest one this time was at Broadway where the annual Santa pub crawl was in full swing There were hundreds of people dressed up like Santa Claus milling about in the midst of .the flashing neon.

After our Christmas spirit fix, off we headed back to Union Square and a walk to Hollywood Diner at 16th Street and 6th Avenue. If you’re with another person, split the appetizer platter. The mozzarella sticks, chicken wings and chicken fingers cost us less than $6 a piece.

Day 3

After breakfast on-the-go at Chomp on 14th Street near 2nd Avenue where a small cup of coffee and a bagel is $2 we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art via the # 6 train. The museum has a suggested admission price of $20 for adults, but you can pay what you want.. Don’t feel cheap if you pay less. I do. For a trip through the best of the world’s cultural and artistic riches, here’s the place. My favorite exhibit was The Amercans, photographsby Robert Frank who created a photo essay of his travels across the United States from1955 to 1956.

At the other side of Central Park from the Metropolitan is the American Museum of Natural History. We stopped here long enough to see the atrium where part of the movie “Night at the Museum” was filmed. The two large dinosaur skeletons make an impression. Since I had been here two weeks before and we were limited on time, this stop was brief.

The walk through Central Park took us past the Delacorte Theater, home Shakespeare in the Park in the summer. We stopped long enough to take a picture of a couple who had just become engaged. They made a fetching site and asked us to take their picture when we passed by.

Next on the list was The Dakota where John Lennon was killed. The building is not well marked. The entrance is on off of Central Park West.

From here it was on to Grand Central Station where we stopped by the holiday crafts show, the whispering wall and the train museum. The whispering wall is by the food court on the ground floor. Look for two arches in an entry way. If one person stands on one end of an arch and another person stands at the other, you can hear each other talk, even if you’re whispering. Face the wall for it to work.

Next stop Chinatown and dinner at the Shanghai Café. on Mott Street. There were four of us. We had an order of steamed pork dumplings, chicken lo mein, chicken fried rice and a broccoli dish. The bill came to $24. From Chinatown, we headed up Mulberry Street through Little Italy. In a few blocks we came to Umbertos Clam House where we split a carafe of red wine and the high schooler had a cappuchino. The bill came to about $25, as much as dinner. No bargain, but a lovely way to end the evening. The half carafe would have been plenty.

With an early afternoon flight, we headed to the bus stop at Grand Central for the 11:00 a.m. (or thereabouts) bus and had enough time to go to the New York Public Library. Because you can’t take luggage inside, I waited outside for my high school friend to visit. She proclaimed it to be the most wonderful library she has ever seen and marveled that it was free. The library has rotating exhibits so it is always worth a stop.

So there you have it. New York City on the cheap. In all we, spent about $18 each on subway rides. I lost track.

For an inexpensive place to stay near Union Square, try Hotel 17 or the Seafarers International House..

The only place on the high schooler’s list that we did not see was Tiffany’s but we did see Tiffany stained glass windows at the Metropolitan. She also hoped to see the Naked Cowboy, but all those Santas made up for it.

Undiscovered New York: 10 unique NYC sights

It’s been exactly 10 months since our very first feature here at Undiscovered New York. Given the occasion, it’s the perfect time to look back at some of our “greatest hits.” When we first started the Undiscovered New York series, our intention was to provide an insider’s look at the hidden places, history and overlooked spots in this huge city, the very spots many visitors don’t have a chance to visit.

Along the way we’ve taken you through all five boroughs of the city, from the far reaches of The Bronx, to the the rich cultural tapestry of Queens, to the quiet waterways of Staten Island. We’ve revisited some familiar sights with a fresh look and discovered hidden gems begging for exploration.

If you ever wanted a chance to check out the “undiscovered” side of New York, this week you’re in luck. We’re counting down the top 10 unique New York City sights, reviewing our favorite unexplored and lesser-known Big Apple experiences. You may find spots you know and love and a plenty more you’ve never heard of. Ready to go exploring? Let’s take a look.

  • Number 10: Staten Island’s Snug Harbor – New York visitors need not go far from Manhattan to get a unexpected look at this huge city. In fact, just a 25 minute ferry ride away is Staten Island, home to Snug Harbor, a former complex for elderly sailors. In addition to some wildly beautiful harbor views this quirky compound has modern art and a botanic garden complete with its own hedge maze.
  • Number 9: Secret Eating + Drinking – A city the size of New York is bound to have some hidden spaces. In fact, as we discovered, it’s filled with Prohibition-style speakeasies, secret burger joints and unassuming taco spots ready for some clandestine enjoyment. Places secret enough, in fact, that we got a few people angry for giving away their hidden favorites. See what we uncovered.
  • Number 8: East Village + Japan – New York’s East Village is a neighborhood best known for St. Mark’s Place and the youthful rebellion of Punk. But in 2009, the East Village is less the home of mohawked-rockers than ground zero for some first rate Japanese food, shopping and culture. Find out how to experience Tokyo without ever leaving the Big Apple.
  • Number 7: Best NYC Pizza – New York is a pizza-lover’s dream. Nothing better embodies the city’s frantic energy and high culinary standards than the simple New York slice. We investigated some of the best slices from here to Brooklyn and Staten Island (and back again) to crown New York’s pizza champions. See who came out on top.
  • Number 6: Graffiti Culture & 5 Pointz – the 1970’s and 80’s presented New York with a unique confluence of events: as the city fell apart due to massive budget problems, a golden era of hip-hop and street art came of age. We investigated New York’s wild graffiti history, even pointing a spot in Queens where you can see some awesome street art on a massive scale.
  • Number 5: Bronx Little Italy – many New York City visitors know about Manhattan’s Little Italy. But not very many are familiar with Arthur Avenue, a second Little Italy in The Bronx, site for some of the city’s most authentic Italian meats, cheeses and pastries. Italian food lovers will want to check this little-known spot out.
  • Number 4: Staten Island Graveyards – Staten Island is frequently regarded as New York’s “forgotten” Borough, an island that provides a shocking variety of unexpected attractions and great food. We investigated the ghostly boat graveyards just off Staten Island’s coast and then stopped off to visit another more human burial ground dating back to the Revolutionary War.
  • Number 3: Hudson River Valley – there’s a lot more to New York than its bustling metropolis. In fact, just north of the city that never sleeps lies one of the United States’ hidden treasures: the Hudson River Valley. Along the shores of this majestic waterway lie stunning views, contemporary art and regal Presidential mansions.
  • Number 2: Corona Park, Queens – Corona Park, located just South of Citi Field and LaGuardia Airport is quite possibly New York’s most outrageous hidden attraction, albeit one hidden in plain sight. Site of not one but two World’s Fair, Corona Park boast huge deserted stadiums, a 140-foot-tall globe, the temporary home of the United Nations and some of the best Lemon Ice ever.
  • Number 1: 7 Train to Latin America – New York is home to a huge range of immigrants, representing every corner of the globe. Nowhere is this more true than in Queens, a Borough home to a wildly diverse range of cultures, foods and attractions. Along Roosevelt Avenue you’ll find a rich mixture of authentic culture from around South and Central America boasting Mexican taco stands, Cuban food, Ecuadorean street carts and Argentine bakeries. It’s the equivalent of backpacking south of the border for 3 months, all less than an hour from Manhattan by subway.

Undiscovered New York: Is the “Real” Little Italy in the Bronx?

Welcome back to this week’s installation of Undiscovered New York. New York has a longstanding love affair with all things Italian. From the Feast of San Gennaro to some of the world’s best pizza outside Italy, to our town’s infatuation with the Cosa Nostra, it’s hard to deny that Italian culture has strongly influenced New York culture. In fact, many visitors come to New York specifically to check out Little Italy, a well-known strip of Italian restaurants and shops around the intersection of Mulberry and Grand Street in downtown Manhattan.

For those who came to check out Little Italy, have a cannoli and grab some calamari at Umberto’s, it’s certainly a fun time. Seems like a good dose of Italian culture, right? What if I were to tell you there’s another, some would even say better, Little Italy in New York? Well that’s just what I’m trying to tell you paisano, and it’s in the Bronx.

Curious? Why not click that link below and find out the story behind Arthur Avenue, New York’s other Little Italy.
What is it exactly?
When discussing the Bronx’s very own Little Italy, we’re generally talking about the intersections of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue also known as Belmont by locals. The area surrounding this intersection is a virtual feast of Italian American and immigrant culture in New York, offering a huge array of authentic Italian food markets, butcher shops, bakeries, old school red sauce joints and plenty of Italian gift shops.

Enough with the chit-chat, what can I eat?
If you like Italian food, welcome to paradise. Ground zero is probably the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, a one-stop Italian bazaar full of all kinds of hand-made Italian foodstuffs like sausages, olives and freshly made pasta. Once you’ve worked up an appetite (probably immediately) stop by Mike’s Deli for one their amazing sandwiches stuffed with Italian meats like prosciutto. Don’t forget to hit some of the other area favorites, including Teitel Brothers for Italian specialties like olives and anchovy paste, Terranova Bakery for some hearty Italian-style loaves, Calandra’s Cheese for some mozzarella, and Madonia Bros. for some superb cannoli filled on the spot.

What else should I check out?
The best part about Arthur Avenue is that you can make a day out of your visit. Not only is Arthur Avenue home to Italian culture – lately it has become home to a large populations of residents from Mexico, Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania. The Bronx Zoo and Bronx Botanic Gardens are also both within easy walking distance of Arthur Avenue. Both sites are as good a spot as any to take a leisurely stroll or nap and perhaps sleep off that sausage and peppers you had for lunch. And if it’s baseball season, you’re no more than a 10 minute subway ride from a Yankees game.

How do I get there?
Perhaps the closest subway stop to Arthur Avenue is the Fordham Road stop on the B and D lines. From there, you can jump on the Bx-12 or just walk your way a few minutes east. Another alternative is the Metro North Fordham Road Station, which stops nearby.

A very special “Thank You!” to Steph Goralnick, for all the awesome photos in this story.