Sunday, December 1, 2013

Branching out of Astoria to Chinatown & Little Italy

Even though I spend most of my time eating out in Astoria and LIC, I thought it'd be fun to explore that other borough (you know...that giant one across the river).

The truth is that I spend nearly each day of the week in Manhattan and for that reason, I'm always looking for a reason to get out.  But who am I kidding...when it comes down to it, there are so many wonderful eats to explore there, that when I was offered the chance to see it through a new perspective with Ahoy NY Tours & Tasting, a 
NYC Food and Walking Tour of Little Italy and Chinatown, I was eager to take the opportunity. 

Although the food tour I'm about to highlight is purely dedicated to Manhattan, I was excited to learn that all roads point back to Astoria, as Alana, the Ahoy's founder and guide, hails from our near and dear neighborhood.

You may recognize this lovely lady above as my dear mama, who graciously accompanied me on this tour - and together we learned all there is to know about Chinatown and Little Italy.

Tour Structure:
Taking place on a Saturday morning, my mom and I were glad to see the subways were running on time, and getting downtown was surprisingly a cinch.

We met Alana and our tour group at an agreed meeting point in Chinatown, after which we headed over to Little Italy as the first stop of our three hour tour.  As I already hinted above, I frequent this neighborhood almost daily for work, but I've never seen it in the way I did that day.  Everything felt personal and expertly curated, as we strolled through the well known Mulberry and Grand Streets, Little Italy's main tributaries.

The tour started with a short synopsis of what we'd be seeing throughout the day, as well as a helpful map and short descriptions of all the places we'd frequent.  It was great to have this as a preamble to the tour, so we knew how to orient ourselves and had a clear understanding of what we had to look forward to.

I enjoyed the general pacing and organization of the tour, as all the food tastings were injected with interesting historical narratives that brought us back in time to when the first Italian and Chinese immigrants settled in each respective area.  Even though each one of our stops was rightfully centered around food, we learned a lot about Italian and Chinese culture in general, through the rich stories that went along with each food establishment we visited and its vibrant proprietors.

Our Guides:
Getting to know Alana and Liz, our helpful tour guides was just as fun as sampling all the food.  Cheerful, knowledgeable and extremely helpful, they balanced each other out well - Liz being the more peppy one while Alana offered great structure and organization.  It didn't go unnoticed how seasoned and well prepared these ladies were, always having a tray full of food, extra napkins and toothpicks and even alternatives for people with special diets.  

Foodie Highlights:

There were so many tasty treats found on this tour, many of them being true tastemakers' finds, but a few of them in particular stood out:

Alleva Dairy - A true institution in its own right, Alleva is the oldest Italian cheese store in America, and isn't afraid to embrace its heritage (just take a look at its exterior signage).  While the interior is simple and old fashioned, they let their family jewels shine so to speak, which are their fresh mozzarella and various types of cured meats.  Alana came around with a heaping tray of freshly sliced prosciutto di Parma with chunks of bocconcini, which we nestled into the prosciutto and immediately popped into our mouths.  Pure, unadulterated Italian heaven!

Di Palo's Fine Foods - Another long time Italian institution, this specialty shop has been in the neighborhood since 1910.  Boasting similar offerings to Alleva but on a much larger scale, customers get helped the old fashioned way, by taking a ticket and waiting their turn.  Here, we got to sample two types of Italian cheeses including a cow's milk cheese (Piave) and a sheep's milk cheese (Moliterno), which staying true to my Eastern European roots, was no doubt my favorite.  In addition to cheese and cured meats, they have tons of authentic Italian treats such as candies, cookies, pasta, all sorts of pickled products and more.

Pongrsi Thai Restaurant - Migrating over to the Asian part of our tour, we headed over to Chinatown, only to visit a delicious Thai Restaurant called Pongrsi.  Known to be the oldest family-run Thai restaurant in NYC, it offered a nice little respite from the walking and the chill outside.  It was also the only sit down part of our tour, and where we got to know our fellow tourists more personally.  

A foodie highlight from this location was the chicken dish with peanut sauce you see above.  It was probably one of the simplest things on the menu, but its quality ingredients shined, especially that flavorful (and toothsome) peanut sauce.  Mmmm....

Nom Wah Tea Parlor - Just like all of the other locations on the tour, this one had a special significance too because it's the oldest dim sum restaurant in Chinatown.  Still family owned and operated, it was as busy as can be on a Saturday afternoon, and we stopped in quickly to sample their original egg rolls.  Because I was still on my gluten free diet, I didn't try them, but had the amazingly delicious rice noodles with pork and veggies instead.  My mom tried the egg roll and verified it was superior, and something not to be missed next time (it has a thin layer of egg rolled around the veggies, which is where its name comes from).

My Favorite Part:
All food delicacies aside (and there were many), my favorite part of the tour was seeing the city in a new light.  I loved learning about the little hidden treasures that I pass by each day that contain a rich history and family traditions.  I'll certainly be visiting these places again, and highly recommend the NYC Food and Walking Tour of Little Italy and Chinatown to all of you.  Think of it as a city experience with an Astorian perspective.

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