Although most college students would normally shy away from the prospect of waking up in time to catch a 10 a.m. train on a Saturday morning, members of the Culinary Club did just that when they embarked on their food tour of Manhattan’s NoLIta neighborhood.
The nearly two dozen connoisseurs made the early trek to the intersection of Lafayette and Spring Streets, where they met with tour guides from City Food Tours. Guide—and also founder of City Food Tours—Joyce Weinberg told students that in the next two hours, they would “visit six different countries—with no jet lag.” Weinberg started her touring business in 2003, after spending more than 25 years in the food industry, managing ventures ranging from a 125-seat restaurant in Philadelphia to Fortune 500 food and confectionery businesses.
“These foods are made painstakingly, with passion,” Weinberg said.
First off on the tour was the small Vietnamese deli Saigon, between Mott and Broome Streets. While Saigon serves small appetizers such as summer rolls and salads, its specialty is the banh mi, a French-inspired sandwich that comprises a crusty wheat and rice flour baguette often filled with pate, grilled pork or chicken, and packed with cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon.
Down the block, on Broome between Cleveland Place and Lafayette Street was D’España, a boutique specializing in Spanish food products, such as Serrano ham and a multitude of goat, sheep and cow’s milk cheeses.
“If you take anything from today, don’t eat Kraft cheese,” Weinberg said as she and another guide handed out samples of Manchego and MahÓn cheeses—two of Spain’s most famous cheeses. Manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese originating from the central La Mancha region of Spain, features a whitish color with a brown, inedible rind, while MahÓn is made from cow’s milk and is produced on the Mediterranean island of Minorca.
The tour group also learned a little something about cheese: anything from the color of the cheese to how it tastes can be affected by the diet and habitat of the milk producing animal. In essence, a nation’s cheese is a sort of microcosm of its history and geography. MahÓn cheese, for example, features a distinctive salty taste due to the sea breezes around Minorca.
“Cheddar cheese was made because of hard British winters. Cows don’t produce milk during the winter, and before refrigeration, you had to know what you were going to eat so that you didn’t die,” Weinberg said.
Much like how cheeses can be indicative of a nation’s culture, history, and geography, the types of restaurants a neighborhood has can be representative of its population and income bracket. As the tour group edged closer to the borders of Little Italy, it was easy to see why the neighborhood got its name. Though the neighborhood’s borders shrink as it is slowly assimilated into NoLita and Chinatown, the area around Mulberry Street is still home to Italian restaurants such as Lombardi’s (Spring Street between Mott and Mulberry)—the birthplace of the New York style pizza. Lombardi’s once occupied the space that is now home to Gatsby’s Bar, Lounge and Grill, but the continuous rumble of the 6 Train beneath the street cracked its antique oven. More than 100 years after it was founded, Lombardi’s still manages to draw crowds.
While munching on prosciutto bread from Parisi’s, the tour headed towards Prince Street for its next two destinations, which were next door to one another: Pinche Taqueria, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint—people were sitting on the planters outside—and Liebe, which, despite its German-sounding name, is an Indian fusion restaurant. Though the group didn’t sample any of the tacos, a guide doled out servings of another Pinche Taqueria specialty: fries made from yuca or cassava, a starchy vegetable and staple food in South America and the Caribbean, which were then washed down with mango lassi (an Indian yogurt based drink) from Liebe.
It was finally time for desert, and the group hit its last two destinations—Oro Bakery & Bar at Broome St. between Mott & Mulberry Sts. and Papabubble, an artisanal candy shop just across the street. At Oro, plates of snickerdoodle and chocolate cookies awaited them, but for many, one of the tour’s biggest highlights was at Papabubble, where the two women behind the counter made “caramels artesans,” spinning a huge multicolored hunk of pliable hard candy into an ice cream cone shape, then cutting it into individual sticks. Though it’s a labor intensive process (the mass of hard candy weighs in at nine kilograms), according to one worker, “you can automate it, but it just wouldn’t be the same.”
Although the Culinary Club had originally planned to go on a trip to the set of Bravo TV show Top Chef, according to junior business and economics major Trupti Patel, who handles the club’s public relations, the original venue could only host 15 people and was much too costly.
Regardless, Liang Zhuo, a senior biochemistry major and the Culinary Club’s president for the past year, thought the trip went well.
“I’ve only seen this on the Food Network,” Zhuo said, in reference to the candy production process at Papabubble. “This is the first time I’ve seen it in real life—this is so cool!”
Janice Costanzo, the Craft Center Coordinator and faculty advisor for the Culinary Club, said it was great for Long Islanders such as herself, who don’t normally take tours.
“It was a great way to see the city and spend two hours eating lunch,” she said.