During our recent trip to New York City, Urban Adventures very kindly invited us on their 3-hour Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Tour. We were joined by our friend Nils. I first met Nils more than two decades ago, when he and I were part of a team of 20 young people from Germany who were helping to renovate Manhattan’s oldest synagogue for one month. Nils and I stayed close friends ever since, even though we usually lived far apart, only overlapping for three years in Munich once. (He has also written two guest blogs here and here.)
The tour kicks off at City Hall Park in Downtown Manhattan, reasonably close to Brooklyn Bridge, then meanders through China Town and Little Italy towards East Village and Lower East Side. Our friendly, energetic, knowledgeable guide Bruce greeted everyone upon arrival and made us feel welcome. He didn’t make a fuss about it, but when we got a chance to chat with him between stops, we found out that he had written several well-received travel books and travelled the whole world for some two decades in a row, very impressive!
After a quick stop in the Five Points neighbourhood, notorious for the 19th Century gang wars portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, our first ‘proper’ stop was at the non-descript Chinese snack bar Fried Dumpling in a side street on the edge of China Town. We were served some of the tastiest dumplings we’ve had in a long while, while Bruce chatted away with the owner, whom he obviously knew well.
A few minutes later we were on our way through the streets of China Town towards Little Italy, zigzagging our way past street food stalls and a few tiny street markets. On a couple of occasions, the group stopped and Bruce told us more anecdotes about the neighbourhood and its current and former inhabitants and culinary traditions.
Our next food stop was at America’s oldest cheese shop: Alleva Dairy, established in 1892 and co-owned by famous Hollywood actor Tony Danza. The master cheese maker behind the counter gave us a brief history of the store and explained the delicate mozzarella production process, while an assistant offered us each a large ball of mozzarella and some fine cured ham. The pride and love our host held for his produce was infectious and our tasting session felt more like a religious ceremony than a culinary exercise (in a good way, of course).
We thanked the good man and walked the few metres over to Ferrara Bakery, founded in the same year as Alleva, where our guide shared some more stories and some of our group couldn’t resist to stock up on the pastry and pralines on offer.
The next part of the tour was particularly fascinating to Nils and me, because the East Village and Lower East Side are areas we spent a lot of time in during our stay back then. Bruce continued to feed us with information while we walked past three-storey high, colourful graffiti, the former CBGB rock club (where my mate and I had been to some great punk concerts in the day; now an upmarket men’s denim store), several famous restaurants like Lombardi’s Pizzeria and Prince Street Pizzeria, as well as quirky backstreet bars like Marshall Stack.
Then we arrived at Yonah Schimmel Knishery, probably my favourite stop of the tour. This place just has so much character! Oh.. and the knishes!! As someone who’s into low-carb diet, these starch bombs, usually mainly based on mashed potato, wrapped in a thin sheet of dough and then baked (or sometimes fried or grilled) are nothing I would eat every day, but boy are they tasty. Yonah Schimmel has been serving knishes from this very location since 1910, and hasn’t ever changed the recipe since. It was founded a few blocks away two decades earlier in 1890 and has always remained within the family. We were served by Yonah’s great nephew, Alex Wolfman. This shop is one of the few remnants of the times when this neighbourhood was dominated by Orthodox Eastern European Jews.
Sitting down for the first time, all of us started chatting with each other. Everyone in our group had an interesting background one way or another, and an unusual anecdote or two to share. We were also surprised that several persons in our group were current or former New Yorkers. Like most people, they had split their time between working in their day jobs and spending time with their circle of friends in their own little environment. They were enjoying the tour just as much as we did.
The group continued the conversations on the short walk over to Loreley Beer Garden. Having grown up in Germany, Nils and I felt a certain sense of pride, when Bruce explained how America nearly would have ended up choosing German as national language and how strong German influences were in many industries. We all shared some pretzels and a couple of pints of hefeweizen, pilsener, and lager, exchanged contact details amongst some of us. Then it was already time to say goodbye and make our way to nearby Katz’s Delicatessen, where we were going to share one of their famous pastrami sandwiches between the three of us (not that we were starving, but it was our only chance to visit Katz’s during this trip, as we wouldn’t come back to this neighbourhood).
We will definitely do another food tour with NYC Urban Adventures during our next visit to New York, this time as paying customers. 5 out of 5 in our book.