The “City That Never Sleeps” is also the city that never stops eating. New York City’s immigrant past and present has created centuries of culinary greatness. Most of the city’s iconic foods are as beloved today as they were when they were imported and adapted beginning in the 19th century. Arguably the epicurean epicenter of the US, New York is where specialty foods and food trends (cronuts anyone?) are born and bred. As food fads have come and gone, there are some portable foods that have stood the test of time, becoming iconic foods synonymous with New York City.
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Ever since Jewish immigrants brought this round breakfast bread with a hole in the middle to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, bagels with schmears of cream cheese and slices of lox have been the quintessential Big Apple breakfast. Since 1936, Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys has been making its namesake breads the same way: Kossar’s kettle boils its bagels before baking them on burlap boards and stone. The chewy bagels are made with good ol’ New York City tap water (which most bagel aficionados will tell you is the not-so-secret reason why New York City makes the best bagels). Kossar’s is the oldest remaining Bialy bakery, so be sure to also order a Bialy, a softer and chewier cousin of the bagel. Short for Bialystoker Kuchen, which in Yiddish means “little bread from Bialystok,” a Bialy is a Polish yeast roll similar to a bagel that is made of wheat flour, kosher salt, water, and brewer’s yeast. Often called “Jewish English Muffins,” Bialys have no hole; instead, their centers are filled with roasted onions or garlic. We love to order The Classic signature sandwich, a bagel or Bialy topped with sliced Nova, ‘everything’ cream cheese, tomato, onion, capers, and dill.
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The origin of the two-hued cookie (it’s actually a “drop-cake,” a small cake made by dropping thick batter from a spoon onto a cookie sheet for baking) is said to be based on halfmoon cookies that were invented at Hemstrought's Bakery in Utica, N.Y. However, Jerry Seinfeld put the black and white cookie on the map when it was featured on two episodes of Seinfeld. The vanilla cake-like cookie is generously frosted on one slide with fudge icing and on the other with vanilla buttercream frosting. Russ & Daughters sells some of the best black and white cookies in the city. The fourth generation-run “appetizing” store (“appetizing” shops are those that sell foods like fish and dairy that are traditionally eaten with bagels) has been an institution known for its baked goods and provisions since 1914.
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New York Restaurateur Arnold Reuben said he invented the New York cheesecake in 1929 although others also claim to have created it. No matter, the world has had a love affair with New York cheesecake ever since. Unlike its Italian cousin, New York cheesecake is denser and creamier thanks to extra egg yolk in the cream cheese. Founder and chef Umber Ahmad of Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery makes one of the best New York-style cheesecakes. We like to order the Heavenly Cheesecake, which has a hint of lemon zest and Madagascar vanilla bean, which is lusciously nestled on a dark chocolate cookie crust or the traditional graham cracker crust.
Once a soda fountain staple, the humble egg cream was invented in New York City (although who created the concoction is debatable). Some say the drink was Brooklyn-born in the 1880s while others say it was first made in the Lower East Side either at a luncheonette or a candy store in the 1920s. A century later, the fizzy drink has endured as a classic diner drink. The name is a misnomer as there is no egg or cream in the drink, a frothy combination of milk, seltzer, and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. An East Village newsstand might seem like an unlikely place to get one of the best egg creams in the city, but Gem Spa, on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue, has been serving one of the best egg creams for decades.
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Like other iconic foods on this list, the hot dog’s roots are traced back to Europe. German immigrants who settled in New York were the first folks to sell hot dogs from pushcarts in the 1860s. Hot dog carts filled with “dirty water dogs” are ubiquitous in the Big Apple (the hot dogs are nicknamed “dirty water dogs” thanks to the murky water vendors pluck the hot dogs from before serving. The water isn’t dirty; it is actually seasoned with things like onion, vinegar, red pepper, cumin and nutmeg). The popularity of eating hot dogs is widely attributed to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs in Coney Island. Founded by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker in 1916, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs has been serving its world famous all-beef hot dogs from the same location at the intersection of Surf Avenue and Stillwell Avenue ever since. Nathan’s and its hot dogs are so popular that thousands of people come to watch competitive eaters scarf dozens of them during the annual July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest.
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Like many of New York’s most beloved foods, immigrants introduced pastrami to the city in the 19th century. Made from cured meat that is seasoned and smoked, pastrami is quintessentially served on rye bread. Our favorite deli to enjoy this delight in Katz’s Delicatessen, a Lower East Side institution that has been serving hungry New Yorkers at all hours since 1888. Our go-to order is the Katz’s Pastrami Hot Sandwich, a massive sandwich generously piled high with delicately sliced pastrami that has been cured for up to 30 days that is crammed between two pieces of rye bread. It’s nearly impossible for one person to eat the entire sandwich, so bring some friends.
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Naples, Italy is the birthplace of pizza, but Neapolitan immigrant bakers who settled in New York are credited with creating an adaptation of Neapolitan-style pizza that is now known as New York-style pizza. In most New York pizza parlors, wood-fired ovens are replaced with coal ovens to produce a crispier pizza that New Yorkers call their own. While New Yorkers spend a great deal of time debating who sells the best slice (everyone has their own favorite place) and whether the slice should be folded when eaten (true New Yorkers say yes), our favorite pizza joint is Di Fara Pizza in Midwood, Brooklyn. Opened by Domenico De Marco in 1964, “Dom” still makes pies with the help of his children. There is almost always a line, but if you’re in a hurry, just order whatever slices or pies are coming out next (try the squares – Sicilian-style slices – too!).
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Soft pretzels were first brought from German settlers to Pennsylvania in the 1700s and later came to the cobblestone streets of New York City in the early 1800s. The warm and chewy New York version is sprinkled with coarse salt and served with optional yellow mustard. It’s not hard to find one of the city’s cheapest snacks: pushcarts flank most corners of Manhattan and fancier establishments, like The Standard Biergarten, the street-level beer garden at The Standard hotel, also serve this perfect snack.
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