Friday, October 15, 2010

Chinatown and Little Italy: New York Travel Tips

Shop signs and advertising in Chinatown, New York City (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The day after we visited Brooklyn, we decided to visit Chinatown and Little Italy. A bit of a touristy choice, admittedly, but both areas are interesting and the food can be really good if you know where to eat. I also knew that there would be lots of photo ops for Luis, always a draw, as Luis likes nothing better than snapping away at anything that moves (or isn't moving, for that matter) for hours on end. We created our own custom walking tour of New York's Chinatown, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Chinese immigrants and home to the largest group of Chinese outside of Asia with approximately 100,000 residents. Our first stop was the Mahayana Buddhist Temple, bringing fruit as an offering to the Buddhist shrine and buying a couple of wishes/prayers at another shrine for good luck. We were able to wander around freely, visiting various shrines, the interior of the temple which houses the largest gold Buddha in the city at 16 feet tall, and the well-stocked gift shop; everything was decorated in tones of gold, red and yellow and every surface was covered in flowers, fruit, candles and incense. After leaving the temple, we wandered into a nearby park to watch groups of Chinese women appearing to be having the time of their lives, laughing, telling stories, smoking and betting on a card game called  Si Se Pai (Four Color Cards). They tried to teach Luis the rules of the game, but their explanations got lost in translation somewhere along the route from Mandarin to English to Spanish. 


    A group of Chinese women in Chinatown placing bets on a hand of Si Se Pai or Four Color Cards (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Instead of sitting in a restaurant for lunch, we decided to visit various bakeries, markets and cafeteria-style "food to go" places and so ended up tasting a dozen different Chinese specialties, creating a kind of portable smorgasbord: Char Siu Bao (steamed pork buns), lightly glazed almond cookies, mooncakes, dim sum dumplings, crispy scallion pancakes, crab cakes, fresh plum and lotus leaf teas and soup dumplings. For dessert, we headed to the nearby neighborhood of Little Italy to sample the different cheeses, coffee and cannolis. Although much of the original Little Italy has now been absorbed by Chinatown, several interesting blocks still remain to be explored. The neighborhood of Little Italy began to form around 1860, when the first Italians began to immigrate to New York, taking on real size in 1920, when 391,000 Italians lived in the city. At Dipalo's, we tried some delicious smoked buffalo mozzarella, then we sat at a sidewalk table at Caffe Napoli and drank strong Italian espressos while we watched an Italian wedding reception, then wandered into several bakeries to sample different flavored cannolis. Luckily, since we visited on a weekday in October, we were able to wander around without fighting too many crowds; neither neighborhood was packed with tourists, as they are at the height of tourist season.         


A busy street in Little Italy (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Now fortified (to say the least) by our double espressos and the three kilos of sugar coursing through our veins, we had no choice but to speedwalk up to Washington Square Park and Washington Mews, an 18th century cobbled street originally lined with stables, now converted to offices and residences used by New York University. The sun was setting by now but the park was still filled with musicians and performers, students (NYU campus borders the park), snack vendors and colorful characters of all kinds, including a man with tattoos and piercings on every exposed part of his body (and probably every unexposed part, better not to ask), several well-dressed Latino transvestites and a tough-looking man decked out in a leather motorcycle jacket with large eagle insignia, a motorcycle helmet, leather motorcycle boots and chaps, incongruously riding a two-speed bicycle seemingly tricked out for a 13-year old girl, complete with multi-colored handlebar tassels and pink metallic heart stickers. That's what I love about New York...what other city can offer Chinese dinner, Italian dessert and a free show, all within a few square blocks?    


Washington Square Arch at dusk (photo by Luis Bastardo)



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