January-February 2014 | Features

The Flavor of the Big Apple

There's one sure way to enjoy the flavor of the Big Apple: Take one of the city's food tours

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Joe’s Pizza, the Greenwich Village institution owned and operated by Naples-born Joe Pozzuoli since 1975, has been visited by a host of celebrities over the years. But its latest claim to fame was its inclusion in the movie Spider-Man 2. Actor Tobey Maguire, aka Spider-Man, plays a Joe’s delivery guy.

Our tour guide finishes telling us some of this history, then ducks into the jam-packed joint, emerging with the pizzeria’s classic New York pie. He places it on a bar table outside and notes that the pizza’s made with San Marzano tomatoes and whole milk mozzarella. Everybody grabs a slice.

Luckily, there are 15 people in this Foods of New York Tours group, and 16 pieces in the pie. My son, a recent graduate of New York University who practically majored in pizza, calls the last slice.

Traditional New York pizza—thin-crusted and foldable—is the ideal first food for our three-hour walking/eating adventure through Manhattan’s West Village. Our noshing contingent includes a Chicago mom and her grown daughter from Arlington, Va., a group of tourists from California, and a collection of locals, including a suburban teenager celebrating her birthday with a friend. And it includes me and my two kids, committed foodies who are always on the lookout for our next memorable meal.  

We’re all here for bites of the Big Apple, a city with so many good restaurants and interesting grocery stores and so little time to enjoy them, particularly over a single weekend. Our June jaunt on the “Original Greenwich Village Food and Culture Walking Tour” is one of five tours given by the company, which was founded in 1999 and claims to be the oldest of the dozen or more food tour firms in the city.

Over the course of a steamy afternoon, we’ll sample 15 different dishes at eight places, and by the time we part, we’ll be feeling fat and happy. More than a pleasurable pig-out, though, a tour such as this is a great way to learn about New York, since food shops and restaurants are inextricably linked to the city’s immigration, history and architecture.

Our guide, Ted Mineau, a tall, slim and perpetually chatty man who also works for The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, sprinkles his tour with historical links, trivia and restaurant tips along the way.

Living in Greenwich Village is like living in Europe, Mineau explains as we gather on Bleecker Street, around the corner from Joe’s. In both places, people tend to do their shopping at small specialty stores—the cheese shop, the bread store, the olive oil boutique—rather than at large supermarkets.

So here we are at O&Co., a tiny, chic shop lined with shelves displaying all sorts of olive oils, vinegars, tapenades, spreads and more.

An employee gives a brief talk, mostly about the superiority of the oils that are custom-made for O&Co. by small-batch producers in the Mediterranean region. Based in France, the company has five shops in the United States, as well as in Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere, in addition to a bustling business online.

The overview sounds like a lot of hype, but the food samples don’t disappoint. First, basil oil is drizzled on baguette slices, followed by a spread of Parmesan truffle cream. Both are intense in flavor, eliciting an enthusiastic round of oohs and aahs from the group. (Mineau tells us the truffle cream is great when mixed into pasta or spread onto a burger; later, he adds that he covets the store’s truffle salt, which he likes to sprinkle on eggs.)

The final sample arrives in small plastic cups: balsamic cherry vinegar mixed with tonic water, a titillating drink combining acid, fruit and fizz.

Back outside, Mineau launches into a brief historical aside. In the late 1700s, Bleecker Street was a main road in New York City, and the Federal-style brick homes all had farms behind them, he says. The Dutch and English were the first immigrants to settle in the area of Bleecker Street, and then the Italians came in the late 1800s.

That segue brings us to Faicco’s Pork Store, a family-owned Italian specialty shop that has been in business on the street since 1900 and makes seven types of sausage daily, according to Mineau.

While the group waits on a corner, Mineau heads inside the store with its red, white and blue pig emblem sign, and comes out with a container full of arancini, the deep-fried rice balls that everybody loves. These are winners—greaseless, golf ball-size orbs lightly coated in herbed bread crumbs and filled with creamy risotto and homemade mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.

“Any vegetarians?” Mineau asks as we savor the last bites of arancini. When no one raises a hand, he heads back to Faicco’s, returning with slices of homemade soppressata, a sweet and spicy salami that melts in your mouth. Buono! My kids and I, not normally soppressata fans, agree that Faicco’s version has single-handedly changed our minds.   

Aware that we’re blocking foot traffic, Mineau asks us to line up single file as he delivers a what-to-eat-where lesson around the corner on a quaint stretch of Cornelia Street. Go for the crabcakes at Le Gigot, he tells us; lobster rolls at Pearl Oyster Bar; burger, clam chowder and macaroni and cheese at Home. He sprinkles his recommendations with stories about the chefs and owners, while reminding us that these are not chain restaurants with cookie-cutter menus. (We know that, Ted!) He also frequently mentions dining here or there with “Todd,” the founder of Foods of New York Tours. 

Todd Lefkovic, a Jersey boy from Cranford, started coming into Manhattan to eat when he was a teenager. He’d hit mom-and-pop restaurants, specialty stores and other out-of-the-way spots. As he got older (he’s now 52), he’d “go to one restaurant for an appetizer, another for a main course, another place for a drink, another for music,” says Amy Bandolik, director of operations for Foods of New York Tours.