An Indian Abroad.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
– Anthony Bourdain
When I completed 12th grade in Mumbai, I packed my bags and moved to a small liberal arts college in the United States. After graduating, I was ready to move again. This time it was to the Big Apple - New York City. I had lived here for a year and a half till it was time to come back home to a technology start-up. I always knew that NYC would be on my travel list again and here I was in Little Italy and Chinatown on a food tour.
My love affair with New York
The morning of the tour, I skipped breakfast and reached Ferrara Bakery & Cafe in Little Italy at 10:30am, where I met Liz, our guide. I wasn’t satisfied with simply revisiting my old home. I wanted to rediscover these electric neighborhoods through flavor, culture, and history.
The tour was three hours long and the meals served were considered ‘progressive’. Liz escorted me to a reserved section of the restaurant, where two round tables had been set up with water and booklets.
“Has anyone’s family immigrated to the United States from Italy?” Liz began.
A woman in our group responded that her great grandparents had come to America from Southern Italy. This, Liz explained, was common, as most Italians that immigrated to New York City were from the same region as the woman’s. Consequently, Italian-American culture predominately has Southern Italian influences.
Di Palo’s, in business since 1903. Image source: thenewyorktimes.com
Ferrara is world famous for its Italian cannolis, which originated in Sicily, in the boot of Italy. The pastry is a crispy tube filled with ricotta and chocolate chips, and it was the first treat we tried on the tour.
Spoilt for choice
Liz passed around a photograph of Mulberry Street, which has historically been the heart of Little Italy, steeped in Italian-American culture and history. It’s still a bustling street with various businesses run by immigrant Italian families, many of who have been in business for over 100 years.
Mulberry Street back in the day
I braced myself for a sensory overload as we stepped into the second shop. Prosciutto was dangling from the original tin ceiling and various types of cheeses were stacked on the counters. Alleva Dairy, established in 1892, is still the oldest cheese shop in all of America. We were greeted with some delicious homemade mozzarella and prosciutto that melted in our mouths, while Liz told us about the 100-year history of Alleva.
America’s oldest cheese shop. Image source: pinterest.com
Next, we made our way to the neighboring Piemonte Ravioli Co., which has been serving Little Italy since 1920. In 1955, Mario Bertorelli, an immigrant from Italy, took over the store, which he and his son, Flavio, continue to operate. The store offers a full line of fresh pasta, which is made daily in their warehouse. At Piemonte, we ate some delectable gnocchi with their homemade tomato sauce. It was so good that people in the group asked for seconds, and we all wanted to buy the ingredients to take home. Piemonte provides fresh pasta to some of the best Italian restaurants in NYC, as well as to Alitalia Airlines, Italy’s national airline.
Say cheese! Image source: Flickr.com
The next stop was Di Palo’s Fine Foods for some more cheese (we weren’t complaining) and olives. Siblings Marie and Sal DiPalo are the fourth generation to run their family's famous 98-year-old Italian foods shop. It is a gourmet marketplace for Italian staples, such as boutique pastas, cheese, meats, oils, vinegars, and breads that are sourced from local bakeries and imported from Italy. We munched on tasty pieces of cheese (Piave and Moliterno) and olives from Italy. After Di Palo, we were finito with Little Italy, and we walked off some of our carbs to the nearby Chinatown.
Manhattan’s Chinatown. Image source: flickr.com
We began our Chinatown culinary journey with a sit-down dim sum meal at Nom Wah Tea Parlour. Nom Wah, established in 1920, is Chinatown’s first dim sum parlour. For most of the 20th century, Nom Wah was a neighborhood staple, serving fresh Chinese pastries, steamed buns, dim sum, and tea. Nom Wah is traditional, yet trendy and casual. It is also a great example of Chinese-American cuisine. The flavours are authentic Chinese that are served in an American-friendly manner.
At the parlour, two tables with dim sum and Jasmine tea were already set for us. We ate shrimp dumplings, the house special roast pork buns, and rice rolls with fried dough. In the group, it was many people’s first dim sum experience, and I loved seeing how they reacted to the food and their awkward use of chopsticks.
You have to dim sum in Chinatown. Image source: fabfoodchicago.com
Luck for our stomachs, the next two tastings were small, as we were already stuffed. We entered Tasty Dumpling, a standalone budget dumpling eatery for some yummy pan-fried pork dumplings.
Our final stop on the food trail was Columbus Park, formerly known as the Five Points Park, where Liz dispensed our final tasting: Nom Wah’s famous almond cookies.
Nom Wah is a must do
While we struggled to eat our cookies (by now everyone was bursting), I learned that by the end of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants had fused their cuisine with American cuisine to attract non-Chinese people and tourists to their restaurants. This led to the birth of Chinese-American food, including dishes such as General Tso's Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken, and Orange Chicken. She also explained that the dangerous parts of Chinatown were consequently cleaned up, and white, wealthy, college-educated youngsters are now occupying the area. Moreover, authentic Chinese restaurants are giving way to non-Chinese eateries and cafés.
With a smile on my face and a full belly, I thanked Liz and started to make my way home. I was surprised by the amount I had learned through the food tour. I had visited Little Italy and Chinatown numerous times before, but after visiting these family-owned, off-the-beaten-path establishments that have been in business for over 100 years, I saw the two ethnic neighborhoods in a new light.
A lot has changed in both the areas since the first Italian and Chinese immigrants inhabited them. I’m curious to see what happens in the next decade or so. Till then, I will return for more lip-smacking food, and remember the history each time I dig in.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Pallavi Mehra
Photographs by: Pallavi Mehra
Cover photo credit: huffingtonpost.com