Culinary Tours: On my last visit to New York City, I was on the lookout for something different. The Whitney's current "Off the Wall" exhibit notwithstanding, I was in the market for a day activity that could be enjoyed by my parents and husband and offer an unexpected side of New York. As a novice foodie traveler but someone who adores trying new cuisine and always up for dessert, a food tour seemed the perfect way to have my cake and eat it too, so to speak — combining culture, history and of course, food.
New York City has a thriving gastronomy scene — new restaurants opening every day, menus decorated with Michelin stars and rave reviews and everywhere you look you seem to find a restaurant touting the "Best Pizza in the World."
The city is replete with food tours, most of which cater to a single neighborhood and the local history of that area. Although I was at first skeptical, not at all interested in a run-of-the-mill tour nor visiting the Magnolia Bakery where Carrie and Miranda shared a cupcake, the more I researched New York City food tours, the more appealing the options became.
Known for its "walking tours for the intellectually curious," Context Travel offers a variety of walking seminars in cities around the world — from Athens to Madrid, from Istanbul to Boston. The Context New York tours include architectural history, private art gallery tours and historical guides from the seaport to the skyscrapers. The small, intimate group (up to six people maximum) allows for a lot of one-on-one time and the ability to customize the private tour according to your interests.
The Context Travel Culinary Tour "Tasting the Immigrant Experience" is one of three cuisine walks that delve into New York's appetizing gastronomic history of how cuisine has shaped the neighborhoods and vice versa. Guests are invited to literally taste their way through the immigration waves of the Lower East Side, with special attention given to the Italian and Chinese not-so-subtle influence on the area.
Starting on the corner of Mott and Prince in the heart of what is now known as NoLita, our Context docent guide reviewed the history of the area, juxtaposing the hip and trendy Café Gitane with the local trials and tribulations across years of immigration waves, notably the Irish and Italian communities that thrived on these streets centuries earlier. This paradox of time, trends and tastes set the tone for the rest of the 2.5 hour walk as we explored the Lower East Side's vibrant neighborhoods filled with overflowing markets, bustling restaurants and traditional family-owned shops.
The walking tour highlighted New York's entrenched Italian influences, from the first pizzeria to Di Palo's, one of Little Italy's landmark food shops offering an array of imported Italian meats, cheeses and other hometown products. With more customers speaking Italian than English, you knew you were in the right spot to try a startling variety of olive oils, meats and a mouthwatering parmigiano reggiano. All the while, the shopkeepers join our guide in relaying their love for not only the neighborhood but also the fragrant foods that have cultivated a genuine cultural heritage in New York.
When we had our fill of homemade raviolis and sweet prosciutto served with a short talk about the differences and similarities between Italian and Italian American cuisine, it was time to cross over into the ever-evolving Chinatown. Our guide noted how the name is becoming somewhat of a misnomer as over the last fifty years a surge of immigrants from Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
From fresh lychees sold at the street market to tantalizing barbecued duck prepared to order, the variety of sights, scents and flavors compliment Chinatown's colorful stores and shop windows decorated in a multitude of languages. Stop in the fish vendors and butchers, try ice cream "regular flavors" black sesame and green tea (or the "exotic flavors" chocolate and butter pecan) and join in a game of mahjong at Columbus Park (or just watch from the sidelines).
The Context Travel guide took us into seemingly hidden shops and restaurants that I wouldn't have noticed on my own. We learned about the subculture of Chinatown, from the basement barber shops tucked under the traditional dim sum restaurants to the elegant spas decorated with jasmine and lavender. We cooled off the hot morning with fresh peach tea in the iconic Ten Ren tea store on Mott Street. Although I had grown up just outside Manhattan, this was a side to the city I had never experienced.
Our guide really knew her stuff — with 30 years worth of experience from living in the neighborhood, her enthusiasm and love for her home was contagious, and her insider relationships with the shop and restaurant owners was unparalleled. In addition to the sumptuous menu of historical significance, we learned about its cultural importance not only in the neighborhood but in the city as a whole.
Context Travel's New York City "Tasting the Immigrant Experience" tour is available from Monday-Saturday and costs $70/person for the 2.5 hour tour of New York's Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhoods.