Escape to New York City: Journal entries from a constant wanderer

Follow Wilmington resident Allison Carter as she celebrates her mother’s birthday with a food tour in Greenwich Village while sampling the very best pizza, cheese, wine and risotto balls the Big Apple has to offer.

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Food can take you on a journey: through the past, into the present, and off to the future. As your taste buds are tempted, tantalized and satiated, you are there and that is somewhere else. It is why our society is obsessed with food and it is why the Food Network exists. Food can transport.

So why wouldn’t a food tour through one of the boroughs of New York City not deliver on the fantasy nature of taste?

A few months ago, I was walking with my brother, sister, and mom through the streets of Greenwich Village, heading to our booked time on the Foods of New York Tours.

Left to right: Wilmington resident Allison Carter, her mother, sister and brother with their food tour guide, above, in New York City. (All photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Left to right: Wilmington resident Allison Carter, her mother, sister and brother with their food tour guide, above, in New York City. (All photos courtesy Allison Carter)

My mom is a great cook. Ever since her children moved out — our penchant for mac & cheese mixed with a can of tuna was limiting — she embarked on a gourmet food life, whipping up scintillating and creative dishes from all over the world in her kitchen.

My siblings and I wanted to get her something special for her birthday and we were focused on an experience.

Make that a gourmet experience.

I took to Trip Advisor in search of some ideas in our budget and it wasn’t hard to stumble on the Foods of New York Tours. It was rated one of the top things to do in NYC with more than 2,622 reviews. If you know Trip Advisor, that is an accomplishment in itself.

When I clicked on the Foods of New York Tours website, I discovered that they offer six different tours at around $50/person. For this city, $50 per person is not bad. Admittedly, nothing to sniff at, but you could easily drop twice that amount on one meal at the restaurants included on the tour. So we bought tickets without much debate.

We elected to take the Original Greenwich Village tour, which is their “original” tour, gets the best ratings of them all, and it is Greenwich Village. We showed up at our scheduled time at the designated street corner. Here, our guide was waiting for us with programs, funny jokes, a big smile, and bottles of water.

Then, right on time, we marched.

Part of the group hadn’t yet arrived, but the nearly dozen of us that showed up on schedule were ushered onward right away. It turns out that the timing of these food tours is a fine dance. When the company runs multiple tours a day, all to the same places, guides are required to be on time. Otherwise, a restaurant could get slapped with two Foods of NY Tours at one time so staying on schedule is a must.

The first place our guide took us to was a pizza joint. Perfect start to an 11 a.m. food tour in the Big Apple, right?

We found ourselves on the street during a crisp, sunny morning in front of Famous Joe’s Pizza. The group couldn’t all fit in the restaurant and still allow for paying customers to enter so we gathered around a little patch of sidewalk and no one was bothered.

Unfortunately, despite the intense timing requirements these food tours dictate, Joe didn’t have our pizza ready.

Grabbing a slice in front of Famous Joe's Pizza. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Grabbing a slice in front of Famous Joe’s Pizza. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)

This was fine with us. It allowed us to salivate in anticipation as our guide led us through an incredibly detailed and educational seminar on all things New York Pizza – the best ones, the oldest ones, the traditions, which one which celebrity preferred, and whether it was all about the water.

Finally, our hot pizza was ready and our food tour kicked off in earnest.

Now I have participated in a food tour in North Carolina. The tastes at each place were small, nibbles enough to satisfy a craving, but not a full meal. Thus, I expected our pizza slices to be teasers. Imagine my surprise when we were handed napkins and a huge, greasy piece of NY pizza.

That’s when we realized this was going to be something remarkable. (Maybe there was something to this Trip Advisor thing?)

After we wolfed down the sweet sauce on the thin, gooey bread, our guide moved us onward. We crammed into a tiny shop called O&CO. If you sniff at the idea of spending time tasting different olive oils, then we are not friends.

The O&CO team was prepared for us. After sampling some fresh oil that melted like sun on your tongue, we thought we were done.

Again, we were wrong. After that, it was popcorn with specialty truffle salt, nut butters on spoons, and more.

On this stop, our guide demonstrated his pure passion for food and Greenwich Village. A regular customer of O&CO, he told stories of how their products had been used to make memories in his own life.

If you underestimate the power of a good tour guide, I call shame on you. Having a guide that believes in what they are sharing, who lives it, makes all the difference.

Also, having a guide who was actually of the community meant that he was able to arrange a quick chocolate stop for us, which was in honor of my mom’s birthday. While I don’t want to get our fantastic guide in trouble, I have to mention this. It truly was an extra element of customer service and attention to detail that made the entire experience feel special.

Carter's mother enjoys some chocolate. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Carter’s mother enjoys some chocolate. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)

Any doubt what that means? Check out this face…

Maybe our guide was putting on a show, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like he knew these shops, the owners and their staff. And his attitude helped us immensely on our tour.

After we took a few steps from the chocolate shop — you guessed it — we were eating on the street again. Food tastes better when you stand in early winter sunlight on a street filled with shops, surrounded by noises of life, looking at your loved ones. Try it.

Along with our guide, we popped into Faicco’s Italian Specialties, a place that the neighborhood has embraced as family. Following 9/11, they brought out risotto balls to emergency workers.

We were broken into two groups to go into the deli itself. It was, after all, the lunch rush hour and we couldn’t commandeer the entire facility.

Following our jaunt through the deli, we were feeling pretty stuffed: pizza, risotto balls, deli meats, popcorn, bread, and chocolate. We needed to sit.

Indulging in some risotto balls. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Indulging in some risotto balls. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)

Our guide led us to an unassuming alley and into Palma Ristorante, where we discovered the most beautiful restaurant I have been to in a long time. It was magical and took me back to my summer in Italy — within one step.

The epitome of romance, the owner of the restaurant supposedly brings in this many fresh flowers as a display of love for his wife. I wish we all could be loved to the point of smothering under fresh flowers.

In the back, we found a huge table in what was the old kitchen of the house (and we were told the owners still live in the house/restaurant). Here we tried a farmer’s market soup with potatoes and leeks. While the soup wasn’t the gastronomic circus we had just been on, it was perfect for where we were in our journey and on cold, fall day. It was simultaneously light, yet filling.

No matter how much we felt like we had just found home, there was no time to linger. There was a tight food-stuffed schedule to keep.

We walked a few blocks, but it was welcome as our pants were certainly tighter than before, and made our way to a busier, less quaint part of Greenwich Village where we found ourselves in Rafele Ristorante. This time, we were able to pull up a seat at the bar and order a beverage.

Up until then, there was no time or an opportunity to buy drinks at all. So when we were offered a halftime drink break, my family and I ordered big glasses of rich Italian wine, took off our jackets, and settled in.

Alcohol was not included in the ticket price (since minors can go on these tours and not everyone drinks) so we had to settle up on our own. But even at that point, we had felt as though our $50 investment had gone a long way. A little extra for some wine was just a bonus.

Carter, left, and her mother enjoy some wine during the food tour. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Carter, left, and her mother enjoy some wine. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)

Rafele Ristorante was uniquely decorated and made us feel swank, festive, exquisite, genteel and comfortable all at once. As our wines were poured by a bartender, who was probably one of my favorite servers, complete with wry NYC sarcasm, we were served an eggplant rollatini.

Then, for my mom’s birthday, they brought one piece of cheesecake — on the house. Luckily for us, she offered to share it. Because, while I am not a cheesecake fan, that was what clouds taste like. It was light with a creaminess I wanted to dive into. It was sweet, but tinged with enough savory where it didn’t give me a headache.

We also gleaned the “top secret” news that the chef from Rafele would be appearing in a TV episode of “Chopped” this season. So we were this close to celebrity.

We could have stayed much longer but our guide ushered us out. This time, we took a leisurely stroll through some of the older and more residential parts of Greenwich. We stopped in front of quite a few buildings to talk history and architecture.

We even had the true New York experience of an elderly woman out walking her dog stopping to inform us that our guide was completely wrong. Lucky for us, our guide actually enjoyed that interaction.

When he thought we were ready, into Milk and Cookies Bakery we went.

Truthfully, we could have done without this stop. While the warm chocolate chip cookie we each received was quite delicious, we have eaten a lot of chocolate chip cookies in our lifetime and these were nothing special.

This was also the only place on the tour where the staff seemed to be mildly annoyed by our group’s presence. They were busy and were taking orders by phone. The cookies were big and I felt obligated to finish mine, which ended up feeling like a mistake. Milk was provided on request; we didn’t request any.

Murray's Cheese Store in Greenwich Village. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Murray’s Cheese Store in Greenwich Village. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)

After this stop, we still had more places to visit! Are you still with me? Did you catch how much we had already eaten and how many places we had been to? Those 50 bucks went a long way.

Gorged, we still had to eat cheese.

Upstairs in Murray’s Cheese Shop, we sat at a large table facing each other while looking down on the activity and overwhelming cheese selections below. The place was alive, yet our energy level as a tour group was starting to fade. We wanted so badly to want the cheese, but we were so full.

And then we remembered that we had a job to do. So … we ate the cheese.

Word of advice: always eat the cheese.

Our food-induced coma was intense. My family and I had caught the early train into the city from Philadelphia and we ended up eating more food than should be allowed.

But we learned so much, too. We smiled. We laughed.

And yet, there was still one more stop on this tour — Rocco’s.

This was the perfect way to end a food tour. While we stared at oodles of delightful confections we now had no interest in putting into our rotund stomachs, we were handed the most delicious mini-cannoli.

Mini cannoli from Roco's in Greenwich Village. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Mini cannoli from Roco’s in Greenwich Village. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)

We took a moment to pepper the staff with typical tourist questions (How do you know how much to make? What happens if it doesn’t sell? How much waste is there?) and then we took a bite … The ricotta and chocolate shavings brought peace and closure to the tour.

My family and I promptly went back to our hotel room and slept off the food. Until it was time for cocktails and dinner, of course.

I cannot recommend this tour enough as I know we will remember it for years to come.

The experience was more than just food. It was a history lesson in food and the buildings in the Greenwich Village. It was a celebration of the neighborhood. There is a lot of community pride there, which was somewhat surprising given how it is nestled into a huge city.

IF YOU GO: Book your tour ahead of your visit on their website. Arrive on time. Be ready to stand. There is walking involved, but not too terribly much. You will, however, spend a lot of time on your feet. Don’t eat before you go. Don’t plan to eat afterwards.

Allison Barrett Carter is a freelance writer who moved from Chapel Hill, NC to Wilmington in search of more salt and sand. As a mom to two young kids, she struggles to find time to write but has gotten very good at making excuses for herself. Carter’s work has been featured in numerous national and local publications as anything left from her paycheck is set aside for travel. It’s a passion, not a problem. She can be reached at allisonbcarter@gmail.com

Greenwich Village in New York City. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Greenwich Village in New York City. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)

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