Having done a number of food tours over the years while travelling, it’s immediately obvious when a company is experienced at running them, and I place particular value on tours that give you an experience that’s elevated to what you might receive as a regular visitor. Foods of New York Tours’ Nolita and Little Italy’s Secrets Tour distinguished itself in its attention to detail: a cute little souvenir napkin at the beginning, tables reserved ahead of time and staff/food prepared in advance so we could immediately sit and enjoy, and a helpful guidebook given to us at the end of the tour were all great reasons to fork out the little bit extra.
So much of a food tour hinges on the energy and presence of your guide, and their ability to take something they do multiple times a week and make you feel like it has the excitement and engagement factor of someone’s first food tour. Nolita (‘North of Little Italy’) is not a large area – spanning only 3 blocks or so of NYC – so this is definitely not a walking-intensive tour, which was good because it was a pretty hot day.
Thankfully, Bert was definitely that guide and made the Nolita tour a pleasure to participate in. What Bert’s tour did well was to chronicle the relics of a cultural area that was once 50 blocks wide in an entertaining and vivid way.
What better to start a (North of) Little Italy food tour than with pizza? We started at Emporio Ristorante, a classy pizza joint, complete with a curtain to the back room to be drawn if a celebrity is visiting. We didn’t have celebrities but we did watch our prosciutto pizza being made live.
While the pizza’s flavours were simple and classic (rocket, prosciutto, tomato), the freshness was its biggest selling point – the mix of Grana Padano (cow’s milk cheese) and buffalo milk cheese had only just stopped bubbling as we bit into the thin, Neapolitan style dough.
Seamore’s embodies the spirit of Nolita’s current transformations: young people bringing back the traditional but updated for the modern day with its bright, Scandinavian-esque interior and its cute hand-drawn menu, with an orange spoon denoting the daily ‘landing’ fish.
Our beer battered pollock with sweet potato fries was accompanied by homemade tartar sauce. The fish was beautifully fried and I particularly loved the pickle chunks and very vivid punch of acidity in the tartare, that cut through all the oiliness.
As we walked, we were given a crash course of Nolita’s famous landmarks, such as a nondescript building which used to be a stable, then an ‘ice house’ for storing dead bodies for the Italian mafia in NYC. We saw the Albanese Butchery, where Martin Scorsese’s grandmother bought her veal. There was general NYC trivia (did you know there are still 9000 red cast iron fire alarms in NYC that were the only things that worked during 9/11 when the powerlines failed?), and great insight from Bert about food culture in New York and its role as one of the last communal experiences in such a crowded yet occasionally lonely city.
A particularly memorable stop in the ‘walking’ part of the tour was The New York Shaving Company, which has been named top 5 barber shops in the world and for good reason. Stepping inside, you feel like you’re on a movie set, complete with black and white tiles, shaving tools that look like they were from the last century and the most beautiful interior detailing.
Opposite the road is another hidden gem: Elizabeth Street Garden, one of the last remaining community gardens in NYC, filled with ceramic sculptures (and one you should help save so you can visit next time).
Just around the corner from Elizabeth St Garden and the New York Shaving Company is Oficina Latina, an open eatery with many decor elements based off a vintage motorcycle garage.
It’s an atmosphere and interior decor like no other and we were there to sit down to enjoy a delicious braised short rib arepa – full of rich umami and a kick of spice – and a cocktail menu you can order yourself if in the mood for day drinking. The beef was soft, generously portioned, rich with umami and finished with a tiny kick of spice, accompanied by beans and rice.
The Little Cupcake Bakeshop
We doubled back to the original meeting spot after eating our way – literally – through a block and a half – to The Little Cupcake Bakeshop. I found this perhaps the most average in terms of food – it’s a nicely made cupcake with some rich icing that’s a blend of milk and dark chocolate but quite sweet and basically one-note in terms of flavour profile (walking into the bakery after the tour, there were a couple of other baked goods that looked more delicious).
I did learn, however, that the proper way to eat your cupcake-with-mountain-of-filling-twice-the-size-of-the-cupcake is to break the cupcake base in half and sandwich the filling.
If you’re looking for something that truly encapsulates the vintage-revival, eclectic vibe of modern day hipster NYC culture, look no further than Tacombi, which is based in an old garage space, complete with taco food truck parked inside.
Our bombshell cup of Mexican roasted corn was an explosion of sweet, juicy corn with spices, a creamy sauce and a cheesy, lime-y kick. It’s incredibly moreish – of the ‘would totally eat an entire salad bowl by the spoonful’ variety. I definitely recommend this eatery as a totally unique place to dine in Nolita.
You’ll have to have good timing to fit into the tiny shopfront of Stick with Me Sweets (it holds 5 people so our tour group of 11 had to eat the chocolate across the road) but it would be worth the potential line outside to be able to marvel at their artisan chocolate.
Laid out like perfectly spaced, miniature art pieces, they are like nothing you have ever seen, and easily plucked and dropped in your nearest Michelin starred dessert menu. This is definitely an indulgence dessert – the chocolate was rich and creamy in the way well-tempered, high quality chocolate is, albeit a single mouthful – but it’s worth it for the eye candy.
There’s not much I can say about the Nolita tour other than enthusiastically recommending it as an entertaining and efficient way to get your bearings and dig a bit deeper into NYC’s diverse, food offerings, complete with dynamic and friendly tour guide to answer all your questions. While it’s not going to show you a lot of NYC, relatively, it’s reliably delicious flavours done well, in innovative, modern environments with some cool culinary twists, and that’s worth forking out for.