New York Stories and Tips

New York: Part III: Immigrants & Food

The Mural at Lombardi's Photo, New York, New York

An article about New York city would be incomplete without discussing immigration. In New Amsterdam in the 1640s, seventeen languages were spoken. By 1855 New York had become the most Irish city in America. By the late 1800s Italian and Jewish immigrant populations peaked. (Nearly 1/3 of Italians returned to their homeland). By 1970, 18.2% of the city’s population was foreign-born, however, where they were coming from shifted. The countries of origin had been Italy, Poland, Russia, Germany, Ireland, Cuban, the Dominican Republic, United Kingdom, Australia and Jamaica. In 2000 they changed to the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Mexico, Guyana, Ecuador, Haiti, Trinidad, India and Columbia.

These groups of people brought with them their culture and cuisine. They made a lasting impact on the restaurant scene. We visited two of the most-famous New York landmark restaurants and a neighborhood renowned for noodle bars.

Katz’ Deli
205 E. Houston Street
(subway: 2nd Avenue)

First made famous in WWII with "Send your boy in the Army, a salami". Then, more famous with a little film called "When Harry Met Sally". You know the scene I'm referring to... Yes, it was filmed right here. And we had "what she was having."

By the way, she had pastrami. It is super moist, and they serve it with spicy mustard on rye. And the pickles, are not fully pickled, more like slightly brined cucumber. Julianna liked them but wouldn't recreate "that" scene for me.

All in all, we viewed this as over-hyped.

Lombardi’s
32 Spring Street
Subway: Spring St. & Lexington

It was 1897 when a native of Naples, Italy, Gennaro Lombardi, opened a grocery store at 53 Spring Street in the "Little Italy" neighborhood of Manhattan. In 1905 his employee, Antonio Totonno Pero began selling pizza pies for 5¢. They adapted the Naples classic to the coal-fired oven and topped it with fior di latte (Mozzarella-style) cheese. The pizza caught on and Gennaro licensed the first pizzeria in New York (and the United States).

In 1924 Pero left to open his own pizzeria on Coney Island, and the original Lombardi’s closed in 1984. A decade later the new Lombardi’s opened a block away. It is owned by a friend of Lombardi’s grandson, John Brescio.

Lombardi’s began as a pizzeria, promoting and spreading New York-style pizza across America. What was so special about this American classic? We had to find out for ourselves.

It’s about the sauce -- the freshest I’ve tasted, as if made just moments before we ordered. But it isn’t pizza sauce, instead, something that you would expect on lasagna. The crust wasn’t as thin as anticipated either. We’d heard that you should "fold" a slice of New York pizza to eat it. You couldn’t fold a Lombardi’s slice easily. Plus, it had a flatbread flavor. And then we found the charcoal spots. Dig into those! The charcoal-fired spotted bottom adds a smokiness to the crust.

We cannot express how wonderful the staff was. They were beyond compare, and even opened the pizza oven door to show us the coal-fired method. No wonder locals return over and over.

Next, we were on the hunt for for an authentic noodle bar. At every window in Chinatown we'd stop for a peek and read the menu posted outside. Julianna doesn't eat beef, pork or anything that remotely looks "cute" when alive. Writing "meat with noodle" on the menu didn't entice her. Famished, I finally persuaded her to give a not-so-noodle bar a chance.

It was clean, had strange decor and staff which spoke very basic English. We were given the standard pot of hot tea and ordered "winter melon" soup, Peking-style pork, shrimp fried rice and cashew chicken. It was far too much food for just two people, and the only solid hit was the Peking-style pork, rich and tangy with a crispy layer on the outside.

Probably many places in Chinatown are better. (The Dining Room at 104 Mott Street, subway Canal). Because Julianna had only picked at her food we found dessert at one of the dozen Chinese bakeries. I opted for mango pudding while Julianna dug into an angel food style cake with fruit. Delicious! As we sat on a park bench enjoying the evening and our treats, I wondered how Chinatown came into being.

The Gold Rush brought Chinese laborers by the thousands to the U.S. But as the gold dwindled and railroads were completed, the immigrants moved east to work in cigar-making and textile factories, and laundries. The biggest cities allowed them to congregate into areas (for protection). By 1880 the Five Points slums hosted 1,100 Chinese.

In 1882 the U.S. enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, essentially banning immigration for 10 years, but still the Chinese trickled in. This little New York enclave became home to 7,000 Chinese by 1900. And, when the ban was lifted in 1943 Chinatown's population exploded. Today there are an estimated 150,000 Chinese people living within two square miles, making it the largest Chinatown in the world.

And for dessert...

Max Brenner
841 Broadway
Subway: 14th-Lexington-Union Square

Its classy, stylish and contemporary, and it has tubes of chocolate running across the ceiling into large barrels near the hostess’ station. Yes, this place has hip servers and a Mojito and Margarita bar, along with serving the standard pizzas, salads and pastas. But, you’re really here for chocolate.

The first chocolate "boutique" opened in 1996 in Ra’anana, Israel and has expanded nearly worldwide. One can see why, this place is a chocoholics fantasy gone mad. Their large sweet tooth menu contains chocolate-drenched goodies such as ice cream, cookies, cakes and then dips into new frontiers with "choctails" and crispy chocolate eggrolls.

We tried four different sweets off of the menu, but my favorite was the Berry Lovely off of the "food" menu under "chocolate aphrodisiacs". They mix up Chambord, fresh raspberry sauce and white chocolate. The perfect blend of berry and chocolate, without one overshadowing the other. Julianna declared that her chocolate Granita was amazing, with less calories and more taste.

As a note: four items off of the menu was way too much for us. One treat per person will easily satisfy the chocolate monster in anyone.

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