A couple weeks back, my wife gave me a challenge: entertain her two friends visiting from Colombia with a food tour of Little Italy and Chinatown that lived up to my own standards of good food, catered to their tourist desires for a bit of history and a unique-to-New York feel, and clocked in at under $20 per person.
Luckily, with our office located right at the Chinatown/Little Italy border, great cheap meals are something everyone at Serious Eats is an expert in. I planned out our itinerary in full, even calculating total costs (which, for the record, came up to around $12 a person after splitting everything four ways). We only managed to make it about half way through the tour before the weak-stomached cried uncle, but here's the itinerary in its entirety. There's a mix of the best of Little Italy and Chinatown, sweet and savory, food and drink, and old and new.
Stop 1: Prince Street Pizza
When Ralph Cuomo, owner of the very first Ray's Pizza in New York* passed away in 2008, there was worry that the original Prince Street location would either drop in quality or close entirely. Luckily, the new owners have not just kept up the tradition, they've improved on it, turning the newly re-branded Prince Street Pizza into one of the best slice shops in the city.
* Read more about the obscure history of all of the Ray's here.
What to Order: The standard slices are fine, but what you really want is the Spicy Spring ($3.75), a Sicilian-style slice topped with a spicy tomato sauce, house-made fresh mozzarella, and natural casing pepperoni, the kind that curls up into crisp grease chalices.
Once you've had your slice, walk south down Mott street one block to take a quick look at the lines outside of Lombardi's, the oldest pizzeria in the U.S., and note that oldest doesn't necessarily mean best.
Stop 2: Taïm
A block west of Lombardi's you'll find Taïm, the second brick-and-mortar location of what started as a truck serving falafel and french fries—falafel that handily won our Best Falafel in New York Taste Test, that is. Israeli native Einat Admony has a way with chickpeas that leaves us weak in the knees.
What to Order: You can order a whole Falafel Sandwich for $6.25 and split it with a group (we've got a lot of stops left!), or if you just want a taste, a falafel sampler plate with six balls of falafel and a tub of tahini is just $4. I'm partial to their harissa-flavored falafel, but their green (with parsley, cilantro, and mint) and their red (with roasted red peppers) are also fantastic.
Stop 3: Mulberry Street Bar
A couple blocks south on Mulberry street from Taïm is Mulberry Street Bar, a dive bar lover's dive bar, complete with inappropriately-positioned tattoos, old men with oxygen tanks nursing beers, and the occasional roaming biker crew. It's also the set of dozens of gangster movies and shows ranging from The Sopranos to Donnie Brasco to The Godfather III. Come by on a Friday or Saturday night and you'll catch some pro circuit-level karaoke.
What to Order: A beer. The whole pizzas and the burger are good, but not worth the stomach space for now, we've got some more eating to do.
Stop 4: DiPalo's Fine Foods
Keep walking down Mulberry street towards Grand, where you'll find Alleva dairy on the corner (on some days you'll get a whiff of smoke—that's their smoker fired up to make smoked mozzarella). If you love ricotta, you'll want to step in and ask for a half pint with a spoon. But if mozzarella's more up your alley, walk over to the corner of Mott and Grand (right across the street from the Serious Eats office!) to DiPalo's Fine Foods, makers of the finest mozzarella in New York.
First things first: take a ticket from the roll hanging by the door as you walk in, or you'll find yourself waiting for a very long time to get served. To be honest, you'll wait a long time anyway. The folks at DiPalo—both the employees and the customers—are never in a rush.
What to Order: Fresh salted mozzarella, to be consumed with your bare hands on the street. If you're lucky, there'll be fresh porchetta for sale by the slice. It comes out of the oven around 1 p.m. on most—but not all—days.
Stop 5: Golden Steamer
Golden Steamer has an unfortunate name, but that doesn't change how delicious—and inexpensive—their product is. The small pastry shop on Mott just south of Grand serves a few baked goods, but their mainstay is giant Chinese-style steamed buns with an array of fillings, all priced at 80¢ and under.
What to Order: The Steamed Pumpking Buns and Salted Egg Buns are the most uniquely delicious menu items, though the Pork and Vegetable or Barbecue Pork Buns might be the biggest crowd-pleasers.
Stop 6: New York Mart
One of the most impressive supermarkets in New York is located just across the street from Golden Steamer. New York Mart combines a full-service meat counter, a crazy-large produce section, a full wet market (with live fish, shellfish, bivalves, and amphibians of all kinds), a hot food bar (with whole-roasted pigs and peking ducks), and a full selection of imported Asian sauces, condiments, snacks, noodles, spices, and soft drink all under one roof. It's worth a walk through, even if you don't buy any food. Just be careful: the brigades of old ladies wielding fold-up shopping carts have no compunction about ramming you if you linger too long in front of the live frog display.
Stop 7: Shanghai Cafe
Another block down Mott street and you'll hit Shanghai Cafe, the winner of our Best Soup Dumpling in Chinatown Taste Test. The decor still looks like an airport from the 70's, and the dumplings continue to reign supreme in the thin-and-strechy-dough-pouch-filled-with-savory-broth-and-meat category.
What to Order: the Juicy Pork Buns (a.k.a. xiao long bao or soup dumplings, $4.95 for six) are superior to the crab and pork version. Unfortunately Shanghai Cafe has $4.50/person minimum order for sit-in, so you'll have to order your dumplings to go unless you plan on a full order per person (not a bad plan, if you have the space).
Stop 8: Tai Pan Bakery
There are so many damn bakeries in Chinatown that it's tough to know where to start. Luckily, we we've been to all of them and scoped the out for you. The best in the vicinity? Tai Pan on Canal between Mott and Mulberry.
What to Order: Tai Pan's Egg Custard Tart ($1.10) placed in the top three in our Best Egg Custard Tart in Chinatown taste test. The crust is a little too crumbly for our tastes, but the filling is light, eggy, and just sweet enough.
Stop 9: Prosperity Dumpling
If all that eating's left you feeling a little weighed down, now's the time for a quick bit of exercise. Your next stop is a whole five blocks away. Take a stroll east down Canal until you hit Eldridge, then half a block north to Prosperity Dumpling, one of the top seeds for Best Fried Dumplings in Chinatown. There are dozens of five-to-a-buck dumpling shops in the neighborhood, but Prosperity's got some of the best.
What to Order: The Fried Pork and Chive Dumplings (5 for $1) are plump and juicy with delicately crisped skins.
Stop 10: Vanessa's Dumpling House
Vanessa's, a few blocks north up Eldridge makes some pretty swell dumplings as well, but what you want here is the sesame pancakes. Wide, sesame-speckled discs of dough are shallow-fried until golden, crisp, and puffy in a specialized wide cast-iron pan. The pancakes are then slit in half horizontally, stuffed with shredded carrots, cucumber, scallions, and a choice of meat and sauce, then cut into triangles, like a stuffed pizza.
What to Order: The Peking Duck Pancakes ($2.25) or probably the best deal on duck in town.
Stop 11: Coffee and Pastry From Caffe Roma
Truth be told, the Italian
tourist traps pastry shops in Little Italy are not exactly the best places to get pastry or coffee, but they are an experience a visitor might want to check out. You can take a look at the display case at Ferrara on Grand between Mott and Mulberry, but you'll find better atmosphere, better pastry, and a better time at Caffe Roma, a few blocks west of Vanessa's down Broome Street, on the corner of Mulberry.
What to Order: espresso, cappuccino, or an Italian soda, with a pastry.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.