New York City, a place of commotion and stingy parking, is considered one of the largest food hubs in the U.S. People venture there from around the world for a view of the city’s skyscrapers and a taste of what its old streets have to offer. I, too, packed my bags and headed to the big papa of food cities. Eating at New York’s local hotspots, I enjoyed a week of one grand foodie adventure.
Times Square, Manhattan
Pronto Pizzeria: Only a couple blocks away from the Empire State Building and Times Square, this pizzeria serves up New York-style pizza with an extra Italian twist. Confused? Its array of options offers pizzas with pasta toppings. Penne pasta in tomato herb sauce stacked on top of a thin, handmade New York crust, topped with fresh mozzarella. The innovation stacked Italian favorites all in one — pasta and pizza.
The chef laughed when I asked if the pies were manufactured elsewhere.
“All our pizzas are hand-spun here,” he said. “You’re not from here, are you?”
I was guilty as charged — but I’m no ordinary tourist, so I ordered a slice of this curious pasta-pizza. The soft pasta paired beautifully with the crispy crust.
Central Park, Upper West
Fresh market: Getting off the subway stop at the American Museum of Natural History, you’ll find Greenmarket farmers’ market section between 77th and 80th Street every Sunday morning. My treasure from this market was from a Berkshire Berries jelly vendor that sold jams and honey. Amongst the sweet treats lay a jar of Berry Hot Garlic jelly.
“Give it a try, you’re gonna love it,” said the vendor, while layering crackers with garlic jelly in my hands.
Boy, was he right. With only grunts and moans of satisfaction, I begged for another cracker. The vendor smiled and handed me more samples of the garlicky goodness. Comprised of only vinegar, sugar, garlic, hot peppers, parsley and pectin, this jelly tasted hot and sweet, with a kick of warm garlic. I bought a jar; now back home in Jacksonville, I am able to use it in sandwiches and as a dip for pretzel-thins.
Chinatown, flooded with Asian food and culture, fills the nose with smells of raw fish and fruit. The billboards, shop signs and menus on the street read in big bold Chinese letters and seemed to advertise mostly to the Asian population.
Among the hundreds of people commuting their way through Chinatown, some made quick stops for dumplings, and others shoved ahead. I stopped at a shop selling something out of a big metal pot that scented the air with soy sauce and onions.
“Soup,” said an older Asian woman clinching the ladle.
I asked her what kind it was three times, only to get a scowl and shoo from her steaming pot. Not knowing Chinese was definitely a setback, but I didn’t let that get me down. Other local vendors sold bright-colored fruits and hundreds of kinds of fish. Crabs crawled out of cardboard boxes, hoping to escape from becoming dinner.
I bought a neon pink-colored fruit with a spiky green casing. The inside of the fruit revealed what seemed like a silver kiwi. Tiny black seeds were dispersed in the entire fruit and tasted like a mix between pear, lychee and kiwi. Its visual appeal matched its extraordinary taste.
“Dragon fruit,” said the shopkeeper.
Chinese candy shops sell tea-flavored toffees, sushi-shaped lollipops and candied fish. I tried fresh Asian pastries filled with barbecued pork, one with sweet peas and parsley and chocolate dessert bread. Though the vendors and I spoke different languages, we all spoke the language of food together.
Jackson Heights, Queens
Maharaja Sweets and Restaurant: The Jackson Heights neighborhood is a large Indian community that brings part of India to New York. Flashbacks from India hit me as soon as I stepped off the subway. The air, rich with the scent of spices, bejeweled saris and kurtas — traditional Indian garments — on display, brutal bargains and the heavy smell of sandalwood sent me nostalgically back to my motherland.
We ate at a local favorite called the Maharaja Sweets and Restaurant. Here, I ordered just about the whole menu. Gol gappe — thin puffed dough balls, stuffed with spicy potato, black chickpea, sweet sauce made with tamarind and spicy/sour sauce made with a mix of Indian spices — is an Indian street food delicacy and also my personal favorite. For $4.99 a serving, I enjoyed Gol gappe similar to the ones sold on carts in New Delhi. Aaloo chaat — a blend of potatoes and crackers in spices, yogurt and chillies — was also another favorite.
After setting my tongue on fire, I ordered sweets. Kaju barfi, cashew and milk dessert; pista kaju barfi, pistachio, cashew and buttermilk dessert; rasgula, deep fried dough balls soaked in sugar syrup; and milk cakes were the few I took home. Indian sweets come garnished with a layer of silver and fresh saffron. And they taste just as good as they sound. The pounds I gained from Jackson Heights were the happiest pounds I’ve ever gained.
Main Street, Queens
Singas Famous Pizzeria: Another pizza favorite after Pronto’s pizza was Singas. About $7 for a 10-inch pie, these pizzas are handmade and baked to a golden-brown in huge cast-iron ovens. I ordered the plain cheese and buffalo chicken pizzas, both of which tasted wonderful. Fresh out of the oven, the buffalo chicken pizza packed a good amount of heat and a generous amount of cheese to balance the flavors. The plain cheese unmistakably took the number one spot because of its simplistic deliciousness.
It seems easy enough: A thin, flaky crust, topped with spiced tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella — yet no other joints’ pizza could compare.
“You’re in New York, lady,” said the male server at Singas with pride. “You can’t get pizza like this anywhere but here. We’re not famous for nothin’.”
The food in New York City renewed my senses and expanded my palette. But I can’t say that the city is better than good ol’ J-ville. New York City had its highs but also its lows.
With gloomy subway rides, sad faces and dark corners of morbid expectation, the people of New York seemed to carry the weight of the looming city on their shoulders. The glamorized city lights are worth a bite, but in the end, the sand between my toes and geese crossing the roads are home to me.