Welcome to the West Village, or to some, “The Old Italian Neighborhood,” one of the oldest neighborhoods in New York City. Last Saturday, the afternoon was blissfully spent meandering these streets, popping in and out of some their landmark shops and restaurants, and sampling a bit of this and a bit of that.
All of this was thanks to a great recommendation I received about Foods of New York cultural food walking tours. These tours are extremely affordable, and you get a serious bang for your buck, with food samples that border on normal sized portions from several West Village establishments and non-stop anecdotes into New York culture, history, and architecture. After recommending this tour to several friends, who all raved about it, but never actually trying it myself, last Saturday seemed the perfect opportunity to step out and take in the unfamiliar in a relatively familiar neighborhood. Which just goes to show you, there can be surprises waiting for you even in your own backyard.
The following is a “photo walking tour” of the West Village – hopefully these pictures will inspire you to try a tour of your own, and get a fresh perspective – whether as a local or a tourist – of what Greenwich Village has to offer.
We started smack dab in the middle of Bleecker Street, between Murray’s Cheese Shop and Faicco’s, an over 100-year-old family owned shop.
After a brief introduction to our very pregnant and subsequently hilarious tour guide, and distribution of our “only napkin of the day,” we made our way around the corner for a “slice of pie” – the quintessential slice of New York style thin crust pizza.
This pie was good – verrrry good. While I don’t feel it can hold a torch to Keste, or even Grimaldi’s, this is pizza for the “pizza purist,” made simply with pureed San Marzano tomatoes, not sauce, and all the freshest ingredients. The crust of a New York style pizza, we learned, gets its unique flavor, bite, and crispness not from the type of flour used, but from the soft New York City water. That’s part of the reason why New York pizza is unlike any other.
Keeping with the Italian tradition of the neighborhood, we moved right along to Faicco’s, where we sampled old-school rice balls, just like my grandmother used to make. They were crispy and just the right amount of greasy on the outside, soft, cheesy, and a little bit sweet on the inside. Eating one standing outside in the crispy November air felt like the perfect and only way these should be eaten – just one – to make it count.
Then, we were off down Cornelia Street, a beautiful tree-lined street that is home to many of New York’s most enjoyable dining experiences. These restaurants are small, hole-in-the-wall type places where you could get lost in your meal, and spend hours deep in conversation over a glass of wine. With culinary showmanship of Home, Po, Palma, Little Havana, The Cornelia Street Cafe, Pearl Oyster Bar, and Le Gigot all on one short stretch of pavement, it’s hard to resist the allure of Cornelia Street…
Not to mention, it’s beautiful – a term not often used to describe Manhattan.
First stop was Little Havana, a Cuban cuisine outpost where the 76-year-old owner and head chef opened early to serve us small bites of smoky chorizo atop crispy crostini, with spicy mustard and ropa vieja (shredded marinated steak) layered in between. This was debatably the most delicious, flavorful, provoking thing we tasted that day.
Back out on Cornelia Street, we were given a little history lesson on the “back houses” of Greenwich Village – secret cottages that are hidden behind brownstones and apartment buildings, and marked by mysterious “half” addresses, like the one that leads to the Palma back house.
Coincidentally, this back house was the very house where the original “Cornelia” for whom the street is named grew up. And right next door to 28.5 Cornelia Street is Palma, one of my favorite restaurants in the city, the sort of Uva of Greenwich Village, though Palma would probably argue that Uva is the Palma of the Upper East Side. Either way, Palma is fantastic and has a chocolate souffle that will make you swoon. You certainly should not take my word for it though. You should try it yourself.
Through the restaurant and its garden, we made our way into the back house.
The word charming isn’t quite enough to describe this room; with its brick fireplace, rustic flower arrangements, soft white porcelain pottery, and worn wooden table, it felt like every kitchen should feel, except it was a kitchen-turned-fine dining event space. Here we ate an equally rustic, homey, and pure dish, made by flash-sauteeing cauliflower florets in a screeching hot cast iron pan, then adding toasted pignoli nuts (pine nuts), dried currants which have been soaked in extra virgin olive oil, caramelized onions, and a touch of toasted breadcrumb at the end. The result could be likened to a cross between homemade stuffing, risotto, and of course, roasted cauliflower, with only the best flavors of each. This dish alone is reason enough to visit Palma.
And then we were out, back onto the street, and off to a brief siesta at the local wine bar and bistro, Centro Vinoteca, where the white wine was crisp and the mushroom risotto was velvety and luxurious.
After this, we had a bit of walking was in store for us, and I now know that there are few things quite as fun as a late afternoon stroll around the West Village’s quaint side streets after a couple of glasses of wine. The sidewalks seem to sing, everything seems a cross between silly and romantic, and you will certainly forget your are in Manhattan for a little while.
Along the way, we came across The Little Owl, which I’ve blogged about here in the past, another of my favorite restaurants.
After a good deal of meandering, during which we learned about architecture, brick work, how to estimate the age of a building, and why New York sidewalks are lined with iron strips, it was time for dessert. Well, Dessert: Part One.
If you are a cookie fan of any sort, this is the place for you. Milk & Cookies bakery not only makes several varieties of large, soft, gooey, melt-in-your-mouth delicious cookies, but they will also sell you the mix, or give you two cookies with a great big scoop of ice cream in the middle and call it the best ice cream sandwich you’ve ever had. We were lucky enough to try the oatmeal chocolate chip, which was still warm in the center and did not disappoint. One gentleman on our tour was not feeling well, and when he mentioned to his wife that she would have to eat his cookie too, well, let’s just say that was one of the biggest smiles we’d seen all day.
We made our way back to home base – Bleecker Street – for a quick tour through Murray’s Cheese Shop, followed by an on-the-street tasting (I should mention that nearly everything we at that day was devoured while standing on a street corner).
Finally, our last stop, the grand finale of the food tour, was Rocco’s, more formally known as Pasticerria Rocco, a pastry shop that has held court on Bleecker Street since 1922, and for good reason.
Some of those reasons include pies…
And linzer tarts…
… Oh, and of course, cannoli. But not just any cannoli. Cannoli made the old-school, traditional Italian way, with a baked-then-deep-fried shell filled with a sweet and rich ricotta cheese cream, flecked with candied lemon and mini chocolate chips. These mini cannoli were the perfect cherry on top of a wonderful epicurean and cultural experience.