Judging by the tour buses and grinning hawkers outside our Chinatown office doors, tourist season is back in full swing in New York, and if you're coming to town, we want to help.
Should you be visiting our Chinatown/Little Italy digs, hooray! You're coming to one of the most fun food neighborhoods in the city. But you need to know where to look and where to avoid. Visitors are often surprised when we tell them that Little Italy isn't really an Italian neighborhood anymore, that "real" New York Italians neither live there nor visit its eateries.* These days it's more or less home to schlocky restaurants and bakeries that thrive on dishing mediocre or downright bad food to out-of-towners, and gift shops trading in Sopranos quotes on cheap t-shirts.
*However, plenty of Italian tourists go, a phenomenon I'm still trying to explain.
The neighborhood is still well worth a visit, though, both for the Little Italy institutions that are still awesome and for its proximity to Chinatown's many edible wonders. The two neighborhoods are so closely intertwined that it's easy to do them both in a day, especially with this guide in hand.
Here's what you need to know about navigating Little Italy and Chinatown: though there are some restaurants we'd recommend for full-service sit-down meals, most of our favorite foods in the neighborhood come from specialists—restaurants, small shops, and street carts that do one thing really well. You should figure out what you're in the mood for and plan your trip accordingly—and don't be afraid to mix and match bites for a many-course mobile feast.
Little Italy's "restaurant row" is clustered around a few tight blocks of Mulberry Street, and it's home to a parade of That's Amore soundtracks, pushy hawkers paid to get you in the door, and some really bad versions of eggplant parmesan. (We've tried plenty and we're not going back.) Head farther north on Mulberry and you'll hit three new school restaurants that are doing justice to old school Italian. Rubirosa is our top pick for classic New York Italian with great pizza, pastas, a gargantuan-but-delicious chicken parm, and housemade mozzarella that's some of our favorite in the city. It's fun and friendly there, great for kids, and waits at off-peak hours are brief (make reservations for prime time).
For lunch, visit Parm, a sandwich shop with excellent parm sandwiches, turkey clubs, and way-better-than-Carvel ice cream cake. Waits can get long at dinner, and they don't take reservations, but the menu opens up to include nightly specials worth a look.
If you're looking for an Italian market, there's only one you need to visit: Di Palo's, a one-stop specialty shop that's ignored the march of time, still selling incredible cheese, cured meats, antipasti, and pantry goods. Grab a ticket and prepare to wait on line for a while, but it's worth it for great mozzarella made in-store and a killer antipasto salad. Time your visit for early afternoon to get some of the best porchetta of your life when it emerges hot from the oven at 1 p.m.
Don't miss Parisi Bakery, a family-owned bread and sandwich shop with some of our favorite lard bread as well as some massive parm and cold cut sandwiches. And if you're in the mood for something...not Italian, visit Taim, which is home to our favorite falafel sandwich in the city. (Nearby Balaboosta is great for upscale Middle Eastern, too.)
If you only have time for one Chinese meal, and you're looking for a sit-down with an exhaustive menu, your best bet is one of the neighborhood's southern Chinese restaurants. Shanghai Cafe Deluxe does great soup dumplings, rice cakes, and other Cantonese classics. Nearby Shanghai 456 is also a good option, with a bright, airy setting and some very good lunch specials. Amazing 66 does its own spin on Chinese cooking: traditional items share the menu with pastrami fried rice and short ribs stewed in a whole pumpkin.
Chinatown is also home to a number of Malaysian restaurants. Two of our favorites: Nyonya for shrimp paste-packed stir fries, noodles, roti, and pandan-wrapped chicken wings; and Aux Epices, which is lighter and a little fancier, with big portions of clean-flavored rendang, nasi lemak, and laksa.
Brunch in Chinatown means dim sum, an endless parade of steamed and fried bites from carts that roam the dining room. Though Jing Fong is one of the most popular, and it has some appeal for the sheer enormity of the place.
You could also visit Nom Wah Tea Parlor, if only to walk down creepy-awesome and historic Doyers Street to get there. Nom Wah is the city's oldest dim sum house, but it's been rebuilt from the inside out with much better food. You order off a menu, not from a cart, which means your meal is made to order rather than sitting somewhere in a steamer tray.
The best noodles in Chinatown can be found at noodle specialists, not full-service restaurants. Many of these small shops and hole in the wall restaurants focus on captivating chewy hand-pulled noodles that deserve just as much love as ramen and Italian pasta. Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles does them very well, though they're best ordered stir fried with assorted meats and vegetables rather than in soup. At Spicy Village, excellent wide noodles can top the "Big Tray of Chicken," a spicy, saucy, oily stew of chicken wings and thighs with potatoes, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorn. One order is enough to feed three.
Spicy Village is one ambassador of a rare Chinese cuisine in the States; Xi'an Famous Foods is another. Their noodles have few equals in the city, and toppings of chili oil, black vinegar, and cilantro or intensely cumin-spiced lamb are one of the best ways to spend five bucks in New York.
Just looking for a simple bowl of noodle soup? Noodle Village has you covered, with simple but very satisfying noodle and wonton soups (or noodle and wonton soups, always a good idea).
Like noodles, the best dumplings in Chinatown mostly come from shops that specialize in them. The market rate for four or five pork and chive dumplings is a dollar, and while there are shops all over the neighborhood, Tasty Dumpling is our favorite, and their dumplings come with chewy skins and juicy fillings, and are usually quite fresh.
My personal favorite dumplings in the neighborhood come from Lam Zhou Noodle Shop, which makes decent noodles but incredibly juicy, soy-saucy dumplings that have more tender fillings than almost anywhere. Order them boiled as the skins don't take to frying as well. And as mentioned before, if you're looking for soup dumplings, Shanghai Cafe Deluxe is your spot.
Street Food and Snacks-To-Go
Some of the best food in Chinatown doesn't come from a restaurant at all. First: Gather your quarters and head to Golden Steamer for some of the best steamed buns in the neighborhood for 60 to 70 cents each. Roast pork and pork-vegetable are great savory options; pumpkin and salted egg yolk are awesome desserts.
Pick up some cheung fun, steamed Hong Kong-style rice noodle rolls, at Sun Hing Lung Co. (get there before 4 p.m.) or at one of the street carts around the neighborhood. Ask for toppings of ground pork and scallions, and don't skimp on the hot sauce.
Want something more meaty? How about beef and pork jerky, sweet and charred at Malaysia Beef Jerky. Or kebabs—you'll see small kebab carts all around, but the cumin-lamb skewers (a buck each) at Xin Jiang Prosperity Kebabs are tops.
You should also take advantage of the neighborhood's bounty of fresh handmade tofu at shops like Sun Hing Lung Co. or 212 Grand Food Corp (they do good takeout greens as well). When you get tofu this fresh and naturally sweet, you understand why people eat it like dessert.
If you're looking for a sandwich instead, hit up Saigon Vietnamese for a banh mi (and consider hacking some Chinatown sandwiches of your own). Or get a griddled savory-doughnutty sesame pancake stuffed with meat and fresh vegetables from Vanessa's Dumpling House, a filling sandwich at under $3.
There are two good parks in Chinatown: One along Mulberry Street and another between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets. Gather your treats, grab a park table, and get snacking.
More Tasty Things
Looking for more? How about roast pork, which is a specialty of Chinatown, even though most places aren't that good at it. Big Wong King does my current favorite, both meaty ribs and tender boneless cuts, neither overly sweet. Or how about hot pot at Hou Yi, where the chili-laced broth is seriously fiery, enough to build up a sweat to fight summer heat.
If you want to give congee a go, Congee Village is a whole restaurant based on it (stick to congee-based meals for best results).
Sweets, Tea, and Coffee
After all that salt you'll want something sweet, and while I'm not too big on Little Italy's bakeries and ice cream shops,* Chinese bakeries and tea shops offer plenty of options. Take the light and eggy sponge cake from the Kam Hing Coffee Shop (best in the morning; they usually sell out). Or head back to Golden Steamer for those pumpkin and salty-sweet egg yolk buns.
*Or, for that matter, the Chinese ice cream shops, despite the crowds of customers they get.
Chinatown's home to many a bubble tea shop, but a couple stand out in my mind as better than the rest. There's Teado, a Taiwanese shop that takes serious pride in its bubble tea (they let you choose the sweetness and give you a taste to make sure it's what you want) as well as some nice desserts. On the higher end is Sun's Organic Garden, a tea shop with some great loose leaf tea and herbs stacked on shelves up to the ceiling. Proprietor Lorna's custom tea blends can be purchased for later or made into an especially refreshing, dairy-free bubble tea drink on the spot.
Just Give Me The Best!
What, too much? Fair enough, I've just thrown nearly 40 places to eat at you. While I'm loathe to give "Best Of" recommendations on such a broad topic, here are the dishes and restaurants I'd recommend first to a friend:
- Porchetta and mozzarella at Di Palo's
- Cumin lamb noodles at Xi'an
- Bubble tea at Teado
- Steamed Buns at Golden Steamer
- Roast Pork at Big Wong King
- Falafel at Taim
- Dumplings at Lam Zhou
- Dinner at Rubirosa
Any lingering questions about where to eat in the neighborhood? More suggestions from locals? Sound off in the comments.