FROM DELANCEY STREET TO CHINA TOWN BY WAY OF LITTLE ITALY
The Italian-American, the Irish-American, the Spanish-American – all the hyphenated Americans together – are what give Manhattan its special flavour.
The Lower East Side is where this process began in earnest in the mid-1800s – and where it continues.A three-hour walk tells the story in a way no bus tour ever could. You could take the subway to Delancey Street and wander around by yourself. The area, once crime-ridden, is safe now and home to artists and media types. But the best way to take it all in, literally, is on the “Melting Pot Tour.” This fun and fact packed stroll of a kilometre or two, trails through the Jewish, Chinese, and Italian quarters with frequent stops for tastings of various ethnic specialties as you go.
Susan Rosenbaum,“the Enthusiastic Gourmet,” was my guide. Lively and knowledgeable, she tossed off nuggets of information on everything from the reason the Essex Street Market was opened in 1939 – to get the pushcarts off the streets – to what it takes to be kosher (don’t ask). I met Susan and my fellow tour members – a couple from Brussels and another from Amsterdam, plus a young woman from Philadelphia – at the Essex Street Market. This is a 15,000 square foot enclosed hall with the architectural appeal of a thirdworld bus terminal. But drab as the exterior is, the interior is a cauldron of colour and aromas and talkative people shopping for their everyday needs. In this neighbourhood at least, these can include items like yautia (a tuber from South America), quenepas (a Caribbean nut), octopus, banana leaves, or kosher wine. There are 26 vendors in the market, and we stopped for tastings at two of them: Rainbo’s, an unlikely combination of fish market and bakery, where we sampled only the extraordinary muffins.And the Saxelby Cheese stall which offered a knock-your socks-off introduction to what Americans can produce in the way of artisanal cheeses.
Then, walking backwards and sparking out more historical information at the same time, Susan led us to the Pickle Guys on Delancey Street, an open-fronted shop full of barrels of pickles and olives.There, green cucumbers soak in salt brine, garlic, and spices, for between a day and six months. Proper pickle people have their favourite: new, 1/2 sour, 3/4 sour and sour. We were briskly instructed in the skill of telling one from the other by sight, texture, and taste; they get yellower and softer with time, and more garlicky.
We followed that up with a stop at Kossar’s Bialys.A bialy, as the couple from Brussels knew – but which I didn’t – might look something like a bagel, and may sometimes be substituted for a bagel, but is no bagel. It is a Polish-Jewish delicacy that originated in the town of Bialystok where Bialy bakeries could be found at every street corner until the Nazis eliminated both the bakers and their customers.
Essentially, the differences are that bagels are boiled and baked while the bialy is simply baked and that a bagel has a hole in the middle where a bialy has an indentation. Each comes sprinkled with dried onion.
Standing in the incredibly busy bakeshop, we tasted them both and I now know that, given a choice, I’d go for a bialy over a bagel.
Yiddish shop signs were yielding to Chinese ones as we walked down Grand Street.Turning a corner, we were in Chinatown, and on our way to the Lucky King Bakery. Under dangling lanterns, we settled at a white plastic table while Susan ordered (in Chinese) our next tastings: steamed dumplings filled with pork and black sesame seed rolls. Novice ethnic epicureans, we discussed the offerings. I considered the dumpling filling delicious but the damp and gooey batter tasted raw. I privately noted that my neighbour’s teeth, and surely mine, were darkly freckled with sesame seeds.That’s all you really need to know about sesame seed rolls.
It was past noon (we’d started at 10) and we had only Little Italy to explore. My thoughts turned to wine.What, I wondered, would be the best accompaniment to blueberry muffins, assorted cheeses, pickles of three ages, onion-topped bialys, pork dumplings, and sesame seed rolls? Susan passed around bottles of mineral water, a fine choice.At Di Palo’s Dairy, a fourth generation shop specialising in imported cheese and charcuterie, we sampled Piave, a cow’s milk cheese from Veneto.At Alleva Dairy down the street, it was mozzarella meatballs and an olive from the olive bar.A Grande Finale? Standing in the shiny tile and brass interior of Ferrara’s Café, we sampled cannoli… incredibly delicious, crisp pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta cheese. And here the party ended.The others left, but I lingered behind for an espresso, and a second mini-cannoli, to round off the morning.
Later that same evening, the question was: where would dinner carry on the US theme and be served early enough to cope with post-cannoli hunger at say, 6pm? The answer was the funky, retro Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is literally as American as apple pie, or a meat loaf blue-plate special or a mountainous ice cream sundae. It’s also a great and sometimes raucous evening out as the waiters and waitresses, in outfits harking back to the 50s (red and white poodle skirts or bowling shirts) sing and dance their way from the kitchen to your table, sometimes nearly onto your table. They are good, too.“Many a production on Broadway includes someone who’s worked at the Stardust,” our waiter informed me between songs.“It’s the perfect job for actors as we’re free to go on auditions, and after the run, it’s a place to come back to.” I’d go back myself.
The Enthusiastic Gourmet
Tel: +1 646 209 4724;
The Essex Street Market
120 Essex Street at Delancey Street
Ellen’s Stardust Diner
1650 Broadway and W.51St.
Tel: +1 212 956 5151;
While you’re there:
For an unforgettable glimpse of the harsh reality behind the American Dream, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. Built in 1867, it was one of thousands of run-down overcrowded buildings in which newly arrived immigrants fought for a foothold in the Promised Land.
The Tenement Museum offers tours of the various apartments in the building, bringing the life and times of these new Americans vividly, hauntingly, to life.
The Tenement Museum. To book a tour in advance and for full details visit www.tenement.org.
For tickets for same-day tours, apply at 108 Orchard Street every day but Friday.
The office is open between 11:00 and 17:30 Monday, until 19:30 on Thursday and until 18:00 the other days. Tel: +1 212 982 8420