Bite-Size New York
Want a true taste of the Big Apple? Take a food tour, sample a little of everything and then walk it off.
Joe’s Pizza, the Greenwich Village institution owned and operated by Naples-born Joe Pozzuoli since 1975, has been visited by a host of celebrities over the years. But its latest claim to fame was its inclusion in the movie Spider-Man 2. Actor Tobey Maguire, aka Spider-Man, plays a Joe’s delivery guy.
Our tour guide finishes telling us some of this history, then ducks into the jam-packed joint, emerging with the pizzeria’s classic New York pie. He places it on a bar table outside and notes that the pizza is made with San Marzano tomatoes and whole milk mozzarella. Everybody grabs a slice.
Luckily, there are 15 people in this Foods of New York Tours group, and 16 pieces in the pie. My son, a recent graduate of New York University who practically majored in pizza, calls the last slice.
Traditional New York pizza—thin-crusted and foldable—is the ideal first food for our three-hour walking/eating adventure through Manhattan’s West Village. Our noshing contingent includes a Chicago mom and her grown daughter from Arlington, a group of tourists from California, and a collection of locals, including a suburban teenager celebrating her birthday with a friend. And it includes me and my two kids, committed foodies who are always on the lookout for our next memorable meal.
We’re all here for bites of the Big Apple, a city with so many good restaurants and interesting grocery stores and so little time to enjoy them, particularly over a single weekend. Our June jaunt on the “Original Greenwich Village Food and Culture Walking Tour” is one of five tours given by the company, which was founded in 1999 and claims to be the oldest of the dozen or more food tour firms in the city.
Over the course of a steamy afternoon, we’ll sample 15 different dishes at eight places, and by the time we part, we’ll be feeling fat and happy. More than a pleasurable pig-out, though, a tour such as this is a great way to learn about New York, since food shops and restaurants are inextricably linked to the city’s immigration, history and architecture.
Our guide, Ted Mineau, a tall, slim and perpetually chatty man who also works for The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, sprinkles his tour with historical links, trivia and restaurant tips along the way.
Living in Greenwich Village is like living in Europe, Mineau explains as we gather on Bleecker Street, around the corner from Joe’s. In both places, people tend to do their shopping at small specialty stores—the cheese shop, the bread store, the olive oil boutique—rather than at large supermarkets.
So here we are at O&Co., a tiny, chic shop lined with shelves displaying all sorts of olive oils, vinegars, tapenades, spreads and more.
An employee gives a brief talk, mostly about the superiority of the oils that are custom-made for O&Co. by small-batch producers in the Mediterranean region. Based in France, the company has five shops in the U.S., as well as locations in Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere, in addition to a bustling business online.
The overview sounds like a lot of hype, but the food samples don’t disappoint. First, basil oil is drizzled on baguette slices, followed by a spread of Parmesan truffle cream. Both are intense in flavor, eliciting an enthusiastic round of oohs and aahs from the group. (Mineau tells us the truffle cream is great when mixed into pasta or spread onto a burger; later, he adds that he covets the store’s truffle salt, which he likes to sprinkle on eggs.)
The final sample arrives in small plastic cups: balsamic cherry vinegar mixed with tonic water, a titillating drink combining acid, fruit and fizz.
Back outside, Mineau launches into a brief historical aside. In the late 1700s, Bleecker Street was a main road in New York City, and the Federal-style brick homes all had farms behind them, he says. The Dutch and English were the first immigrants to settle in the area of Bleecker Street, and then the Italians came in the late 1800s.
That segue brings us to Faicco’s Pork Store, a family-owned Italian specialty shop that has been in business on the street since 1900 and makes seven types of sausage daily, according to Mineau.
While the group waits on a corner, Mineau heads inside the store with its red, white and blue pig emblem sign, and comes out with a container full of arancini, the deep-fried rice balls that everybody loves. These are winners—greaseless, golf ball-size orbs lightly coated in herbed bread crumbs and filled with creamy risotto and homemade mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.
“Any vegetarians?” Mineau asks as we savor the last bites of arancini. When no one raises a hand, he pops back into Faicco’s, returning with slices of homemade soppressata, a sweet and spicy salami that melts in your mouth. Buono! My kids and I, not normally soppressata fans, agree that Faicco’s version has single-handedly changed our minds.
Aware that we’re blocking foot traffic, Mineau asks us to line up single file as he delivers a what-to-eat-where lesson around the corner on a quaint stretch of Cornelia Street. Go for the crab cakes at Le Gigot, he tells us; lobster rolls at Pearl Oyster Bar; burger, clam chowder and macaroni and cheese at Home. He sprinkles his recommendations with stories about the chefs and owners, while reminding us that these are not chain restaurants with cookie-cutter menus. (We know that, Ted!) He also frequently mentions dining here or there with “Todd,” the founder of Foods of New York Tours.
Todd Lefkovic, a Jersey boy from Cranford, started coming into Manhattan to eat when he was a teenager. He’d hit mom-and-pop restaurants, specialty stores and other out-of-the-way spots. As he got older (he’s now 52), he’d “go to one restaurant for an appetizer, another for a main course, another place for a drink, another for music,” explains Amy Bandolik, director of operations for Lefkovic’s company.
Working as a graphic designer, Lefkovic would devise eating itineraries and share them with colleagues and friends. In 1999, he advertised weekend food tours in a New York magazine and got about 60 takers. The calls kept coming.
Two years later he quit his day job to devote himself full time to the tour venture. He now employs three full-time and two part-time staffers, plus 15 guides who take people on five different neighborhood tours seven days a week, 360 days a year.
As the year comes to a close, Bandolik estimates that 35,000 people will have taken a company tour in 2013, and that more than 250,000 will have done so since its inception. Lefkovic has competition, however. More than a dozen food tour companies are operating in the city now, though Bandolik claims Foods of New York Tours has the most tour guides and does the greatest volume. (Not that big is always better. With up to 16 people on a tour, it’s hard to fit the entire group into some of these historic stores and pint-size restaurants, making at least some of the tour more of a sidewalk introduction than a real culinary experience.)
As for the clientele, Bandolik says the tours attract “a nice mix,” with about 72 percent of customers American, 11 percent Canadian, 7 percent Australian, 5 percent from the United Kingdom, and the rest from somewhere else.
“And we do get a good percentage of locals,” she adds, referring to the New Yorkers who come on dates, with visiting guests or just for a fun afternoon.
Most of the American out-of-towners have “already done the Times Square thing,” Bandolik says. “They’re trying to see things on a deeper level. And they’re looking for food.”
We don’t have far to look for food. Mineau has just distributed small cups of peach gelato from Dolce Gelateria as we stand on the Barrow Street sidewalk. No sooner have we finished it than we’re off to Rafele, an Italian restaurant owned by a friend of Lefkovic’s. Mineau previews the place, gushing about the eggplant rollatini.
Opened six months earlier, the restaurant doesn’t offer much other than the friend connection in my view. The eggplant rollatini is just so-so, and the restaurant is nice, though hardly distinctive. But after all the standing outside, a sit-down snack is a welcome respite.
We get another sit-down break at the pretty blue-tiled tables of our next destination, the diminutive Milk & Cookies Bakery on Commerce Street, which offers us rich chocolate chip cookies the size of a saucer. The popular bakery, which specializes in homemade ice cream sandwiches and design-your-own cookies (you select the dough base and the mix-ins), also sells founder Tina Casaceli’s Milk & Cookies cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2011).
“Does everyone feel that sugar rushing to their veins?” Mineau asks as we waddle out and head down the charming street, bypassing the former home of Washington Irving.
Thankfully, after six stops for rapid-fire eating, there’s a break in the action. It’s time to digest some trivia instead. Mineau brings us to a red brick structure on Bedford Street and tells us it’s the narrowest house in the Village—9½ feet wide outside; 8½ feet wide inside. At various times, Cary Grant, John Barrymore, Margaret Mead and Edna St. Vincent Millay called it home.
After a stop in front of the famous Cherry Lane Theatre—where Mineau tells us Barbra Streisand got her start as an usher—followed by a brief walk and explanation about a couple of former speakeasies nearby, we head back to Bleecker Street.
It’s time to wrap things up in the second-floor, glass-enclosed tasting room at Murray’s cheese shop, which overlooks a frenzy of shoppers below. In air-conditioned comfort, we’re served slices of three lovely cheeses—ewephoria sheep’s milk Gouda, 5 Spoke Creamery Tumbleweed (a Pennsylvania cheddar) and manouri, a Greek semisoft product. Then Mineau slips out, returning a few minutes later with a box of anisette toast, biscotti and cannoli from Rocco’s pastry shop.
Somehow, all of us find room for those last little bites.
Carole Sugarman is the food editor at Bethesda Magazine.
If You Go
Getting there: Though you can fly or take the train to New York, by far the cheapest and easiest way to go is by bus. Tripper and Vamoose both offer service from Arlington. Tripper Bus leaves from 1901 North Moore Street in Rosslyn and arrives in New York at 31st Street and Eighth Avenue. One-way trips are $27 (www.tripperbus.com). Vamoose buses, which leave from 19th Street and North Lynn Street, in front of Cosi Café in Arlington and arrive at the corner of West 30th Street and Seventh Avenue, one block from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, start at $30 each way. With either company, a one-way ride takes from 4½ to 5 hours.
Foods of New York Tours: In addition to the Original Greenwich Village tour, which I took last June, Foods of New York Tours offers four other eating/walking options, all of them lasting about three hours: Chelsea Market/Meatpacking District; Central Greenwich Village/SoHo; Nolita/NoHo (north of Little Italy/north of Houston Street); and Chinatown. The Chinatown tour, which includes three sit-down mini-meals, costs $65; the others are $49 ($35 for children 12 and under). Tour capacity is 16 people. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and are available online at www.foodsofny.com through Zerve.
Other Tasting Tours
Foods of New York Tours (www.foodsofny.com) claims to have started the trend in 1999, but there are plenty of other food tours out there these days. Here are some of the possibilities:
Famous Fat Dave’s: Featured on the Travel Channel with Anthony Bourdain, the Cooking Channel, PBS and a host of other outlets, Maryland-raised Dave Freedenberg gives private tours in a New York City Checker cab. Stops are made for pizza, pickles, cannoli and much more. Minimum tour lasts two hours and costs $240 for the first eater and $120 for each additional eater and each additional hour. To schedule a tour, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or for more information, go to www.famousfatdave.com.
Noshwalks: Myra Alperson, co-founder of the now-defunct Hungry Pedalers Gourmet Bicycle Tours in New York, has abandoned the bikes, but not the scope of her eating tours, which now cover all five boroughs on foot. Alperson, who also writes a newsletter called Noshnews (www.noshnews.com), leads more than 30 different three-hour tours over the course of a year, including to Brighton Beach, Staten Island and Southern Washington Heights, generally at a cost of $50 each.
See www.noshwalks.com for tour and registration information.
New York Chocolate Tours: This company leads three different tours, each to five chocolate shops. The Luxury Chocolate Tour heads to the posh European boutiques of the Upper East Side; the New Cuisine Chocolate Tour hits stylish, avant-garde SoHo; and a brand-new tour to Union Square pairs chocolate with wine. Tours are two to three hours long, include two chocolate samples at each shop and start at $59. Go to www.sweetwalks.com to reserve through Zerve.
Ahoy New York Tours & Tasting: I took this eating/cultural walk through New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown in 2012. Led by owner/operator Alana Hoye, an international relations and history buff, it covered some terrific places, including a tiny fried dumpling shop aptly called Fried Dumpling that only sells one item, pork and scallion dumplings; Alleva, a cheese shop in Little Italy that dates back to 1892, where we tasted some amazing fresh mozzarella and prosciutto; and Ferrara, the legendary Italian pastry shop, where we ogled the displays of sweets and downed mini cannolis. Tickets, which must be purchased in advance, are $49 for a three-hour tour. They’re available at ahoynewyorkfoodtours.com through Zerve.
Tour capacity is 12 people.
Enthusiastic Gourmet Food Tours: A former manager at Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, Susan Rosenbaum studied cooking at several New York City schools and received a culinary certificate from New York’s The International Culinary Center.
She gives small group tours (a maximum of eight people) of Chinatown, Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Tours are three hours and cost $50. See www.enthusiasticgourmet.com for ticket details.
A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour: This bus tour, started by Brooklynite Tony Muia, takes visitors for sit-downs to two Brooklyn pizza parlors—Grimaldi’s and L&B Spumoni Gardens—and shows them the sights, including Brooklyn Bridge Park, Coney Island, the fancy homes along Shore Road, and the locations where movies such as Annie Hall, Goodfellas and Saturday Night Fever were filmed. The tour is about 4½ hours and costs $80. See www.asliceofbrooklyn.com for ticket information. —Carole Sugarman