If you know me, then you know I am. a fan of history. One look at me and any stranger could probably deduce that I am also a fan of food. This combination made our recent tour with Ahoy (Chinatown and Little Italy Food Fest) in New York City a perfect tour for me, we learned the history of New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown as we ate our way through the neighborhoods.
We met our guide Liz at the Ferrara Bakery and Cafe on Grand Street. This is the oldest espresso bar in the city, dating back to the 1890s. It is currently being run by the 4th and 5th generations of the founding family.
The food we tried at Ferrara’s was a cannoli filled with the traditional ricotta cheese. Traditional cannoli would often contain mascarpone cheese as well, but that was not the kind of cheese Italian immigrants could find in the new world. Ricotta is literally a twice-cooked cheese that was simple to make and readily available.
While we enjoyed our cannoli, our guide Liz told us about the experience of Italian Americans who initially considered themselves more as expats from a particular region or city than from Italy. After all, Italy is a relatively new invention. In those days, a mixed marriage was when a girl from Mulberry Street (Naples) married a boy from Elizabeth Street (Sicily).
Across the street, we stopped at Alleva Dairy which is the oldest Italian cheese shop in America. We tasted their fresh mozzarella cheese and prosciutto di Parma. They don’t make the traditional buffalo mozzarella because of a dearth of nearby water buffalo to milk. They also offered aged mozzarella cheeses.
Just up the street, our taste buds got a treat at Piemonte Pasta where we tried fresh gnocchi and their delectable marinara sauce. Liz explained that fresh pasta was more traditional in the cooler climates of northern Italy, while the dried pasta that we are used to comes more traditionally from southern Italy. Most of the immigrants to Little Italy came from the south, but your taste buds will be glad that not all of them did. Sadly, since Piemonte Pasta makes fresh pasta, they don’t ship, but you may get to try their pasta on Al Italia flights out of New York City, which uses them as a supplier.
Our last stop in Little Italy was Di Palo’s Fine Foods which imports all those products from Italy that you can’t get in the U.S. We tried some Italian cheeses, Moliterno and Piave. Both were great salty hard cheeses. Piave is a cow’s milk cheese whose taste changes seasonally based on the diet of the cows. Moliterno is a sheep cheese.
Little Italy used to be a much larger area, but no neighborhood in New York is static. Before Little Italy, much of this area was the notorious Five Points neighborhood which was ruled by gangs in the middle of the 1800s. Before that, it was farmland and a pond known as the Collect. Now many of the streets that were Little Italy have become Chinatown.
Chinatown used to be only 3 streets centered along Doyers Street. It was a place where the Tongs warred with each other and men with hatchets kept watch from rooftops (the original hatchet-men). It was the most violent street in New York. It was the most violent street in the USA… ever.
All immigrants have faced some prejudice, but only the Chinese were banned by law for many years. From 1882 to 1943, the U.S. operated under the Chinese Exclusion Act which barred the immigration of anyone Chinese. During that time, Chinatown shrunk. It might have disappeared completely if the exclusion act had not been repealed. Now it is not only expanding, but it is not New York’s only Chinatown.
The Bloody Angle is now Haircut Alley. It now has men with scissors instead of hatchets. But the restaurant Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been there since the rougher days in Chinatown. Liz said she recently had an elderly man on her tour that said that he used to hang out with the other students skipping school at Nom Wah since the truant officers were afraid to visit the neighborhood. He said the restaurant was largely unchanged, although you now order dim sum from a menu instead of from the traditional carts.
At Nom Wah, we tried pork buns, shrimp dumplings, huge egg rolls, and tea. My favorite was easily the pork buns.
We learned how Chinatown invented new foods like Chop Suey and Chow Mein to attract the business of the white tourists who were slumming it in Chinatown at the opium dens and brothels. Fusion Chinese food is not unique to America. Liz grew up with Chino Latino in the Caribbean and assumed that everyone thought of Chinese food as fried rice, fried plantains, and fried pork.
Liz said that unlike a Little Italy, more of the millennial Chinese Americans were returning to the neighborhood, reviving old shops or opening ice cream parlors. The neighborhood continues to change. Next to Nom Wah Tea Parlor are two speakeasies, Apotheke Cocktail Bar and the other a tequila bar and restaurant.
We walked to Columbus Park, where we tried our last two foods. Liz went across the street for great pork dumplings (like gyoza) from Tasty Dumpling, then produced almond cookies she had brought from Nom Wah Tea Parlor.
Liz showed us photos of this street taken by photographer and social worker Jacob Riis whose photos of life in the tenements of Five Points led to imposing zoning restrictions like at least one bathroom per floor. Over time these rules also changed the whole character of the local neighborhoods.
We ended our tour in Columbus Park, which is itself a testament to the changing city. It is a park dedicated to an Italian which now has a statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China. The park is now the outdoor living room for Chinatown. It is filled with old and young alike. By this point in the tour, we were pretty full ourselves, with a newfound appreciation for the history, the changing nature, and the food of New York City.