Anyone looking to tour the world on the whims of their taste buds will discover that you can find everything in New York. The iconic city represents a colourful and diverse tapestry of flavours and traditions. Here, immigrants first set foot upon the soil of a new continent and brought with them traditions from countless homelands, adapting them to their new surroundings. Neighbourhoods formed as strangers established bonds of familiarity through shared language and cultural practices. Perhaps most importantly for a people far from home, recognizable smells coming from kitchen windows brought comfort, and relationships with neighbours were forged at the dinner table.
Over generations, these flavours have blended together in countless unique ways, while culinary roots still maintain a remarkable stronghold to the native homelands of parents, grandparents, and great grandparents of today’s New Yorkers. An experienced tour guide can take you through the villages, explain the history of the people who settled there and take you on a tasty journey that brings it all to life.
A great place to begin your food tour is the heavily Italian influenced borough of The Bronx. Affectionately referred to as Little Italy, this neighbourhood became popular with Italian immigrants around the early 1900’s. In Italy, you might spend weeks or even months travelling through the various regions in order to try all the specialities. In the Bronx, you could try it all in a day or two. Sicilian’s brought their fried rice pyramids called arancini and the famous sweet ricotta-filled cannoli.
Eventually, new and inventive dishes were created, like the popular Rainbow Cookie, a chocolate topped almond sweet cake with layers resembling the colours of the Italian flag. To sample these sweet treats and other baked goods, head to Madonia Brothers Bakery on the restaurant-rich Arthur Avenue. This is a third-generation family-owned bakery that first opened in 1918. It’s a grab and go spot so service is quick, and you should get there early for the best selection. Take home a loaf of their much-loved Olive Bread, a recipe that’s been the same for a hundred years, and for good reason.
New York-style pizza is a fiercely competitive category that you’ll need a few slices to tackle properly. As early as 1897, small pizzas were being sold from a grocery store owned by an immigrant from Naples. When people couldn’t afford the whole pizza, he started offering it for less by the slice. The slices were tied with a string, likely to keep the toppings from getting messy. This is one theory as to why the hand-tossed dough eventually got larger and thinner, creating the distinctive foldable slice we now recognize today as New York-style. The thinner dough meant you could fold the slice and keep the ingredients inside, and that you didn’t need to use more dough to make the pies. To taste a piece of pizza history, head to Louie & Ernie’s and grab a slice of their famous White Pizza. They’ve been serving their iconic handheld slices since 1959. Next, stop by another Bronx institution, Full Moon, also on Arthur Avenue. There’s usually a queue, so bring a book or newspaper and beg your taste buds for patience. If you want the full-on experience from a local’s point of view, take a Pizza Tour. What could be better than walking around with your New York tour guide eating pizza all day?
Over the years, this neighbourhood has also become popular with immigrants from Puerto Rico and Albania, further diversifying the authentic flavours available in this relatively small enclave of New York. If you are a fan of pork and anything that’s been dipped into a deep fryer, 188 Bakery Chuchifritos will fully satisfy you, and without emptying your pockets. This is an always busy, meat lover’s paradise with a menu that crosses over into foods of the Dominican Republic like stews, beans, and fried plantains.
Think hearty, rich foods with loads of flavour. La Cocina Boricua is another don’t miss food destination, filled with colourful art and rich aromas. The mofongo is especially good here, a deliciously filling mash of pickled and fried plantains.
In the early 2000s, a wave of Albanian immigrants began to move into The Bronx as the Italian population increasingly headed for the suburbs. Having geographically close ties to Italy meant that the food culture was translatable and easily adaptable. Today, you’ll find many Albanian restaurants serving foods that are more Italian than they are ethnically Albanian. An exception to this is the rustic, traditionally-styled Çka Ka Qëllu. The grilled meat platters and savoury dumplings offer authentic regional flavours that are hard to find. If you’re looking for a quick bite, opt for a hand-held burek pie from Dukagjini Burek. These popular savoury pies are filled with either meat or cheese and spinach. With so many options in The Bronx, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled a long way in a very short time, in what is truly a flavour packed and diverse community.
Our next food destination takes us south to the enclave of Brooklyn. Over centuries, there have been numerous waves of Jewish immigrants settling in New York, so it’s no surprise that a strong food culture came with them. The first Jewish immigrants arrived in what was then called New Amsterdam starting in the mid-1600s. Some of New York’s most famous foods originated in the delicatessen, a popular style of grocer offering speciality and imported delicacies from all over the world. This style of the shop was brought over by the Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, who opened kosher delicatessens in the 1800s, becoming trusted places providing familiar foods that adhered to the strict dietary laws they followed. The delicatessen, or deli for short, has become a staple of New York fare. In these generally small, very local vibe spots, you can sample your way through some of the most iconic New York bites. Take for example the chewy, versatile bagel, originally from Poland, now synonymous with New York.They are traditionally hand shaped, boiled and baked, then eaten any number of ways. A personal favourite is Bagel & Lox. The bread is sliced in half like a sandwich, spread with cream cheese and topped with red onion and brined and/or smoked salmon. The most sought-after version of this popular brunch speciality comes from Russ & Daughters, which has been operating in Brooklyn for over 100 years.
Wash it down with a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, a popular soda classic that resembles ginger-ale but with a distinctive celery-seed flavour. A pastrami sandwich also must be included on your food tour, and there are endless options to choose from. Try the casual, unfussy David’s Brisket House for an unparalleled version of this monster sandwich, piled high with juicy, brined meats and served with a pickle. The delicious, meat-filled knish was first brought to New York in 1910 and is still a popular street food today.
Jay & Lloyd’s Kosher Deli is worth a sit-down stop for their unpretentious, family vibe and of course, their original recipe knishes. For a nice finish, head to South Williamsburg in Brooklyn for a rich treat. Babka is a legendary extravagant dessert, with a sweet chocolate-hazelnut cream spread throughout layers of laminated pastry dough. It’s served sliced, like a loaf of bread, pairs perfectly with a strong coffee. It’s also been voted the Best Babka in NYC by New York Magazine.
For an on the go option, New York is also famous for its loaded Hot Dogs. It is believed that these were first served regionally on Coney Island in 1867 from a small cart and referred to as Coney Island Red Hots. One of the oldest stands you can still find selling the famous street food is Nathan’s Famous, the original on Coney Island, but now available in most major cities throughout the US. Order the classic topped with hot chilli, diced white onions and mustard. Papaya King in Manhattan is another popular spot, offering everything from traditional to outright wild variations including tropical fruits like pineapple.
The Waldorf Salad was born in New York in 1896, created by Chef Oscar Tschirky. The original version consisted only of apple, celery and mayonnaise, and was made by the Chef for a charity event at the hotel. It was highly praised and gained great popularity as a dish that brought “elegance to the masses”. The hotel restaurant has since closed, but versions of this popular dish can be found scattered throughout the city, offering many variations that can include grapes and nuts.
The black and white cookie is a sweet staple of New York bakeries, with its telltale split palette of black and white. Sometimes with fondant or alternatively spread with chocolate and vanilla frosting, everyone has their favourite version and their preferred bakery. For fans of the frosted version, Joyce Bakeshop in Brooklyn is the spot, and for fondant lovers, it’s back to Russ & Daughters- a nice dessert after your Bagel & Lox and Cel-Ray.
If your sweet tooth is still raging, thankfully you’re in the home of the New York Cheesecake. Eileen’s is the world-famous bakery serving up rich slices for over 35 years, and if you haven’t left yet for your New York adventure, not to worry- they deliver, even internationally!
"Erin is an experienced solo traveler, interested in how food shapes culture. She cooks and writes her way through cities and villages, primarily focusing on Western Europe."
Image details and licenses: Arancini: https://flic.kr/p/6wLZ3B (stu_spivack, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Rainbow cookie: https://flic.kr/p/3WqZE (Andre The Mighty, CC BY-SA 2.0), Olive Bread: https://flic.kr/p/9z6cvc (Mark, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Fried plantains: https://flic.kr/p/aBdYJA (Mark Bonica, CC BY 2.0), Mofongo: https://flic.kr/p/7BwGPp (Matt, CC BY-NC 2.0), Burek Pie: https://flic.kr/p/QKuJ5v (Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0), Potato Knish: https://flic.kr/p/744B6 (Robin Zebrowski, CC BY 2.0), Chocolate Babka: https://flic.kr/p/fG2keS (Stephanie Vacher, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Black and white cookie: https://flic.kr/p/ejQFa6 (Mattie Hagedorn, CC BY-SA 2.0)