Confession: I’m not a foodie. I don’t follow world renowned chefs and I don’t eat at their restaurants. My kids watch cooking shows on the Food Network and from time to time, I watch with them.
But I do know New York City. I’ve been living here a long time, and I feel the city’s pulse. When I was invited on a walking tour, hosted by Walks of New York, celebrating its culture and history from the perspective of one of the country’s top chefs and restaurateurs, Mario Batali, I didn’t hesitate. Batali has his home base in Greenwich Village, and I’d heard about his influence.
The last food tour I went on was in Vietnam and I loved it. I loved learning about a culture and stopping at local vendors to sample what we were talking about. The flavors and tastes were like no other I had ever known.
To be honest, the tour was even better than I imagined it would be. Not only did we learn about Batali and his approach, we learned about the Village and the influence of Italian immigrants. The tour unfolded with courses, starting from arrancini (rice balls), followed by tastings of cheese, salumi, and bruschetta at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, gnocchi at Lupa Osteria Romana, and dessert back in the heart of the Village.
It’s important to note that this tour was developed in collaboration with Mario Batali and his team. He doesn’t lead it but it has his trademark and influence all over the itinerary.
Simona, our tour guide, hails directly from Rome and was a walking encyclopedia about Batali, Italian food and Greenwich Village. She told interesting stories and was quite food obsessed, being Italian. She gave us tips, tricks, and recommendations and her food obsessiveness and love for her profession really exuded.
The first course – Primo
We met in Father Demo Square, once a popular place for trout fishing and the heart of the Italian immigrant neighborhood known as the South Village. The area still attracts Italians and it makes sense that Batali started his New York restaurant empire here once you walk around and start seeing all the Italian establishments.
Our first course was inspirational – arrancini from Faicco’s Deli, rice balls from a recipe brought over from Italy with the shop’s owner in 1896. They literally melted in my mouth. Along the way, we passed by Po and Babbo, two of Batali’s Italian restaurants. Our tour guide explained that Batali hails from Seattle, lived in Spain and went to Italy to learn to cook. He learned from a family in a small village and came back to set up shop in New York City.
Visit Faicco’s at 260 Bleeker Street to try the rice balls mentioned above, or try prosciutto, hot cappicola, Genoa salami, house-made soppressata, fresh mozzarella, pickled red peppers, lettuce, and tomato.
The second course – Secondo
Walking down Bleeker Street, we walked by one Italian eateries after another. At Pagani,a restaurant named for the Pagani brothers who immigrated to the neighborhood in the early 1900s, we had a private tasting before Batali’s restaurant opened for lunch of antipasto (bresaola and speck), olive oil (smooth and spicy) and lemon pasta. In 2013 the Lusardi family, Mauro and Massimo, (known for their successful restaurant, Uva, in the Upper East Side) took over the space and opened Pagani with Mark Barrett as executive chef. Chef Mark is a former sous chef at Babbo and inspired by Batali’s example, lived and studied culinary arts in Italy for nearly 3 years. He makes not only fresh pasta for the restaurant but also creates dried pastas. The result is mouth-watering.
Pagani is located at 289 Bleeker Street. Reservations can be made here.
The third course
The portions grew and during our private tasting at Otto, we sampled cheeses, lentils and salad. Simona, our guide spoke on the philosophies of Italian cooking like how to pick a good olive oil, why Italians give Parmigiano-Reggiano to infants and the curious tradition of eating lentils on New Year’s Day.
With nearly full bellies and hearts, we strolled through Washington Square Park and learned about the long history of the park,including the time when it was the upper most part of New York City and later a burial site for some 20,000 people. Batali himself recently donated toward to the restoration of the park’s famous fountain, a testament to his love of this area.
Otto is located at One Firth Avenue.
The fourth course
Lupa Osteria Romana, named for the shewolf who was there at the founding of Rome, was the last restaurant on the itinerary where we learned about the evolution of modern Italian cuisine and sampled their famous Ricotta Gnocchi and focaccia, both insanely delicious.
Lupa is located at 170 Thompson Street.
We topped it off with a dose of gelato at Dolce Gelateria, a traditional Italian ice dessert from Sicily, apparently a favorite of Batali. The gelato is all small batch, artisanal production with the flavors varying according to fresh seasonal products.
Dolce Gelateria is located at 33 Barrow Street.
I highly recommend the tour. I think as a result of going on a food obsessed tour, I’m more of a foodie myself. I loved learning more about the Village’s food culture and being a connoisseur of Mario Batali’s creations for a long morning.
About Walks of New York
Walks of New York launched in April 2014 to provide customized small group tours of New York City. Groups are limited to 12 people and include tours for history and architecture buffs, as well as behind-the-scenes access to top food, theater and local culture, Walks of New York also offers several never-been-done and “skip the line” access to venues and institutions as well as memorable hands-on experiences.
Initial NYC tours range from either 2 ½ hours to three hours and include:
- Highlights of New York Tour: Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central
- Meet the Met: Highlights of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- B&H New York Photography Tour: High Line, Meatpacking, Chelsea Market
- Express Access – Empire State Building Tour and Skyscraper Walk
- Lower East Side Stories: Traditional New York Culture & Food
- Broadway Behind the Curtain
- Mario Batali Culinary Tour (launched August 2014)
Tours range in price from $35 – $59 for adults. There are also discounted prices for students ages 15-24; seniors 65 and older and children/infants five and under are free.
Reservations can be made at www.walksofnewyork.com.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary access to the tour but all opinions are my own.