The last time I ate Italian food in New York I was taken to a tourist joint just off Times Square, which felt a little bit like walking onto a replica set of the Godfather. Diners were sat with red-checked waxy napkins tucked into their collars, twirling and forking colossal mounds of tomato drenched spaghetti and fist-sized meatballs into their mouths.
As I sat down and donned my own napkin, a small corner of my stomach wanted to scream, “No! No! This isn’t how it’s done,” but I was too overwhelmingly disappointed. For a city that has one of the largest Italian communities outside of Italy, I expected something so much more…well…authentic.
Italian Food and New York City
The movies have done Italian food an injustice. TV hasn’t helped either. But what most people don’t realise until they go to Italy is that the cuisine is so much broader and more regional than pizza and pasta.
Head to Florence and you should be gorging on Ribollita – a hearty soup with bread, vegetables and beans – sounds vile but it’s divine. In Lombardy, risotto is the real deal. And pizza – there’s only one real place to try pizza in Italy – Naples.
Yet, despite Italy’s highly regional, intensely seasonal cuisine, the global incarnations of Italian food can be nothing short of shocking. And New York, like so many other places around the world, has proved that to me.
I’m so often disappointed by Italian food outside Italy that I’d made a mental pledge to avoid it, but there was a significant snag in my plan. What about those years when I couldn’t get to the cuisine’s motherland? I chewed that idea over as I worked my teeth through another dry dish of chicken, rice and beans in Colombia. I was due to land in New York for my 5th visit. Maybe it was time to give Italian food in New York another try.
But this time I was going to put my palette in the hands of the experts and I knew just the company – Walks of New York, an off-shoot of long-established Walks of Italy. If these guys can take people on tours of Italy that get rave reviews from Rick Stein, I was confident they would feed me fine Italian food in New York.
So, with a couple of clicks, I signed up for their Mario Batali Greenwich Village Food Tour.
Mario Batali Greenwich Village Food Tour
Like most tourists, I assumed that good Italian food in New York started and finished in the neighbourhood Little Italy. The truth (according to our well-informed, native Italian but resident New Yorker guide) is that Greenwich Village was equally a place where Italian immigrants settled. But, more than that, as Little Italy has sadly turned into a parody of itself, a much more authentic Italian experience can be found in Greenwich Village.
The three-hour, small group tour took us on a fascinating walk through the streets of Greenwich Village with four eating-opportunities on the way, including stops at two of celebrity chef Mario Batali’s restaurants.
Below is a snapshot in pictures of what we ate. (Note: we saw some pretty things on the walk too, but I was too focused on the food to properly care.)
First Stop: Faiccos
The first “stop” (i.e. the guide ran in and got take-out) on our Greenwich Village food tour was Faiccos for rice balls.
I was a bit reluctant with this offering because I’m generally not a fan of breaded and deep-fried stuff. However, like a good food-taster I bit in and I was happily surprised as the thin breaded layer faded into insignificance the second my teeth touched the gooey rice. It was good enough that I could have eaten a second one (a real test that you’re not just being polite), but I was stealing myself for what was to come.
Second Stop: Pagani
We started with a platter of cured meats to share. Ohhhh, how I love my cured meats. A mixture of speck and bresaola, the meat was tender, juicy and lacking the tough air-dried rubberiness that often comes with cured meats outside Italy. I popped more slices of this into my mouth than I intended because it evaporated so easily I barely noticed.
Next up was the taglioni al limone – a taglioni pasta served with lemon zest, carrot, parmigiano and toasted garlic.
It was beautifully presented (check out Pagani’s Instagram picture of the dish, above), but I’m just not a fan of heavily lemon flavoured pasta and the carrot didn’t do much for me either. That said, when the group was asked to name their favourite dish of the day, the taglioni al limone had won about half of the group over, so don’t be put off by my miserable mouth.
Third Stop: Otto
More antipasti was on the menu at the first of the Batali restaurants we visited – Otto.
Home cured salami was served, a welcome addition to the day’s cured meat intake but it was the warm bruschetta topped with leeks that really interested me. As someone who is tired of tomato themed bruschetta, leek was a great alternative and it’s definitely something I’ll try to recreate at home.
The cheese plate went slowly but only because we were letting each bit slowly melt in our mouthes. And when the flavours reached the peak of intensity, the caramelised apricots with chili offered a fresh-tasting respite.
Lastly there was the salad – I say lastly because I always leave salad until last (I’d hate to fill up on lettuce if there is salami on the table). But I’m glad I didn’t just pass over this course because the tomatoes were something special. Blanched to release the flavours and left to dry for a stranger flavour, the tomatoes gave me a flash of Italy on a hot August day, which was a real treat given I was in New York during an arctic snap.
Fourth Stop: Lupa
The second Batali restaurant was Lupa and it the first time I’d tasted something that was better than the equivalent I’ve tried in Italy – pizza bianca. To the common folk (me), I mistook the pizza as foccacia but it was so much deeper in texture and fuller in flavour, despite there not being many flavours as play. I could easily spend a day lying in bed, watching Netflix and devouring pizza bianca. In short: the essence of comfort food that has a high moreish-factor.
I wish I’d been reserved enough not to gorge on the pizza bianca because I had to force the gnocchi down. Fortunately, it was delicious enough I could call on my stomach reserves to help me out. Light and fluffy thanks to the ricotta in it, this gnocchi wasn’t as dense as I’ve tasted before, which was nice (who wants to get full on three pasta dumplings) and the sauce was smooth. But after the pizza bianca and gnocchi, I was grateful for a walk to the final stop…
Final Stop: Dolce Gelateria
Given I’ve just mentioned how full my stomach was after leaving Lupa, I should probably share with you a fact that I’m incredibly proud of – I have a separate stomach for dessert. I don’t know how it works biologically, but in practice it means that regardless of how stuffed I feel, I can always managed to fit in something sweet – magical, I know. And it meant I had space for not one but two mini-cones of gelato on out final stop.
Dolce Gelateria does what not not all gelaterias do – it serves actual gelato. If you’re not sure about the difference between ice-cream and gelato, the food scientists will tell you it’s to do with the air, fat and eggs (you can read more here). Your taste buds will probably tell you that gelato has a superior taste.
I’m generally suspicious of gelaterias outside Italy but I trusted Walks of New York to take us to an authentic place – and they did.
Forcing myself to try something other than my favourites (nocciola and strawberry, for the record), I opted for olive oil and Grandmom’s cream. The former had a strange, sugary, creamy, yet very olive-oily taste and although I was glad I tried it, I wouldn’t go for a second round. The Grandmom’s cream on the other hand was delicious and I’d happily take a tub of that to accompany my pizza bianca for a netflix-comfort-food-and-duvet-day.
To finish off the tour, we were given the low-down on Balsamic vinegar together with a taste of three different bottles so we could compare the difference that ageing makes. The answer: a hell of a lot.
And then the day was done.
My favourite thing about food tours is the number of new restaurants and eateries that you get to try in just a few hours. Each of the places we visited on the Greenwich Village food tour are places I’d happily return to. But my favourite thing of all, at the end of the three hours, I’d forgiven New York its Italian food sins. I’d corrected my ignorance at where and how to get good Italian food in New York and I’ve removed my ban –
I can now eat Italian food in two places: Italy and New York.
You can read more about the Mario Batali Greenwich Village Food Tour here.
If you want to take your taste buds to the homeland, check out Walks of Italy.
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Have you eaten good Italian food outside of Italy? Any recommendations? Have you ever tried a food tour? How did you find it?
My tour was courtesy of Walks of New York.