- Rent out our house during our town’s most visited week – Check!
- Fly the whole family to NYC (direct!) to do some serious wandering – Check!
- Start looking for the city’s (nope…country’s) most perfect pizza – Check!
Our East Village neighbors (my family almost disowned me when the Hells Angel guard approached me to stop taking pictures!))
On my last visit to the city in April 2010, I bonded with Greenwich Village and decided that it was time for this family to leave the security of the Midtown tourist zone and experience a different side of New York. Leave it to me to find something truly unique…this trait of mine both delights and disgruntles my kids. Even I was slightly concerned when we walked up to find a Hell’s Angel clubhouse next door to the address we were searching for. Was this some “Angel’s” warped joke…could the “Inter-Faith Community” that purportedly operated Sanctuary Guest Suites really be a motorcycle gang??? As a group of Hare Krishna followers banged their tambourines up the other side of the street, I almost started praying that they were the “faith” in “Interfaith”.
Soon we were being escorted up four flights of seriously steep stairs to our room. As soon as the manager left us, my family turned on me…
“Hun, where is the third bed?”
“Mooommmmm, this neighborhood is scary…and this place is TINY!”
“Great job, Mom…you’ve done it again.”
Before a full-fledged riot began, I whipped out my Droid and found the reservation confirmation…the one that confirmed my competence. I had booked a room with two queen beds and a fold-out couch…we were missing a bed (and room to move around). I sent Lance out on a reconnaissance mission…success! A mistake had been made…after one night in this room, the staff would lug our bags back down to the first floor to our correct room. That was a close one…
Some East Village graffiti…
Rest for these weary would be delayed until we got some much needed sustenance. At the recommendation of our taxi driver (and Yelp, of course), we walked a couple of blocks to Katz’s Deli. Opened in 1888, this is the same place where Meg Ryan demonstrated her skill at animated sound effects to Billy Crystal. Everyone must eat here at least once in their lifetime! Even if I didn’t eat for days, I would never be able to finish an entire sandwich by myself…a 4″ high stack of the most incredible pastrami and corned beef atop real rye bread. And, they get it here…you keep the focus on the specialty and forget the rest. In this case, the only other necessary ingredient is stone ground mustard…that’s all. I channeled Meg Ryan while I ate my half sandwich…the sign above my head said we were sitting at THE table. I was having such a New York moment…which is why I didn’t complain (much) when I caught sight of the $50 tab. All we got were two sandwiches and three sodas.
Our FAVORITE pizza from Lombardi’s in Little Italy!
After eating a self-serve breakfast in Sanctuary’s breakfast room, we set out for Scott’s Pizza Tour. A miracle happened on the way there…not a single complaint or argument was uttered, nor were hard core negotiation tactics put in play! I think I’m onto something big…involve good food in as many activities as possible.
Scott showed up right on time outside of Gatsby’s, the location of the original Lomardi’s, in Little Italy. He was exactly what I was hoping for…goofy, humorous, contagiously passionate, and a pizza genius. Here’s a blurb from his website:
“Scott Wiener [yep...that's unfortunate] is a weathered traveler who has searched far and wide for great pizza. He developed a deep appreciation for New York pizza while traveling cross-country, noting both delicious and abysmal pies in his Pizza Journal. While some gems did pop up, nothing quite matched the quality of the pizza back home. Pizza soon became an obsession, as Scott’s beloved Pizza Journal provided empty pages that begged to be filled. The media even took interest and Scott found himself in Las Vegas, judging twenty pizzas for Pizza Today magazine’s International Pizza Expo in 2007. New Jersey’s Garden Plate Magazine says “Call Scott Wiener what you want — crazed, possessed, in serious need of a life — but you have to admire someone who has thrown himself so enthusiastically into his work, his mission.” With this mission clear, Scott has made it his duty to deliver the people to the pizza. Armed with a NYC Sightseeing Guide license and an unstoppable hunger, Scott is ready to share his favorite slices with you.”
Scott the Pizza Guru
Who knew there was so much to know about pizza??? In the next three hours, our brains – and stomachs – were stuffed. My New York City envy kicked into full gear with our first stop at Alleva’s (the “oldest Italian cheese store in America”) where we tasted unsalted fresh mozzarella made less than 30 minutes before we arrived. (Sigh.) We reveled over the Margherita pizza at Lombardi’s (the first pizza parlor in the states…licensed in 1905, but purported to be up and running before that), Joe’s Pizza (a walk-up establishment selling slices near NYU), and John’s Pizzeria (a child of Lombardi’s opened in 1929). We left well qualified to conduct our own personal survey of New York pizzas…something I intended to take quite seriously on this trip. I also wanted to be so sick of pizza by the time we got back to San Diego that I would make it at least a month before serious pizza disgruntlement arose. We were all pretty doubtful that we would find a place to outrank Lombardi’s…our hands-down favorite…but, that didn’t stop us from trying.
Nom nom nom nom…
I used to cram each and every day of our vacations so full of sight-seeing that everyone (okay, not me) would be pushed to their absolute limit. Consistent travels – and a new-found appreciation for the art of relaxation – cured me of this neurotic habit. My family is thankful. Each day we return to our room to read, write, get a Facebook fix, Yelp, download pictures…or just snooze. Thankfully, we were in the right room with the extra bed when we returned for today’s rest. Still not much room to move around (and still no TV), but I sure wasn’t complaining…
Since Lance turned me onto Yelp several years ago (in the culinarily challenged city of Big Bear, California), the quality of our travels – especially in terms of cuisine – has been nearly perfected. After Yelping to plan our evening, we headed for Chinatown. For dinner – the 5-star Prosperity Dumplings. For dessert – Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. For entertainment – Chinatown Fair.
Prosperity Dumplingis a family-run walk-up counter in an authentic section of Chinatown. You choose your dumplings and sesame pancakes from the menu above…yes, the prices are in U.S. dollars. How many places in the U.S. can you feed – and hydrate – a family of four for $11.00??? I slunk away like I had ripped off this hard-working Asian family. But, it was fun to watch the family devour dumplings on a picnic table next to hordes of happy children in the neighborhood’s newest park.
The 5-star hole-in-the-wall…YUM!
Our individual personalities were confirmed at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Spencer and I ordered green tea ice cream (come on…we are in Chinatown!) and Lance and Sophie stayed safe with regular and mint chocolate chip. This place deserves the crowds…
Our trip to Chinatown Fair (a vintage arcade) was really a ploy to bank some brownie points to use at tomorrow’s Ground Zero tour. When we walked into the darkened 100+ degree video cave filled with sweaty boys and boy-men, I thought to myself…how in the hell am I going to survive the next 30 minutes??? Then I saw Centipede and Galaga…my temporary escapes from this dreary reality. I followed my son into the core of the hovel, watched him pause, then turn around.
“Let’s go, Mom…this place smells of obsession.”
It was just the sign a mother needs that there is hope for her offspring!
The kids were done for the day, but Lance and I weren’t…that quaint wine bar up the street was beckoning us. The vibe at Three of Cups was very East Village-esque. My white wine sangria – ehhh. But, Lance raved about his two glasses of Malbec. The coal-fired pizza oven behind us did not escape our attention…I feel the competition starting to heat up.
Bamboo bird cages in Hua Mei Bird Garden…
This morning – as I gingerly placed a loaf of moldy bread in the trash receptacle – I focused on how much money we were saving by not eating out every morning. The travel book I had been using on this trip – The Cool Parent’s Guide to All of New York – suggested a walk through Hua Mei Bird Garden in Sara D. Roosevelt Park. While I thought it was quite worthy, it didn’t appear that the rest of my family agreed with me. They seemed to be pondering my sanity as they sat on the curb while I snapped pictures of Chinese men tending their prized song birds that were hanging in bamboo cages throughout the park. Fighting thrushes, finches, canaries, and more…all practicing for some serious vocal competition. Consummate New York…
There is a mathematical relationship between outside temperatures and bickering in our family. It was getting hotter outside…just in time for our walking tour of Ground Zero. My children questioned my sanity once again…hadn’t I promised them no more “regular” tours??? Yes, but I assured them that this one would be far from regular…the tour guide who had been personally impacted by 9/11 better not let me down. It took about 30 minutes for me to be proven right…everyone just needs to stop questioning me!
My son reading the names on the 9-11 Memorial Wall…
Emotional, educational, enlightening…after about 40 minutes perusing the WTC Tribute Center gallery, which houses videos, photos, quotes, paraphernalia found in the wreckage, a memorial to all the people who lost their lives, and more – the walking tour began. Our guide was Chris, a middle-aged guy who was working on the 82nd floor of the first building to be hit. He choked up numerous times as he told the harrowing story of his narrow – and very lucky – escape. I was unsuccessful in holding back my own tears…I wasn’t the only one. For Spencer and Sophie to admit that I was right near the end of the tour was all the proof I needed that the tour had impacted them as well. One of the best sites was the American Express memorial in honor of the 11 employees who were working at one of the points of impact…an 11-sided basin engraved with each employee’s name. A massive crystal “teardop” hovers above the still pool dripping 11 “tears” randomly into an otherwise still pool of water.
Today, Sophie and Spencer demonstrated their own deep appreciation of Yelp. Emotionally spent and getter hotter by the minute, they were willing (albeit barely at times) to walk the four blocks to Crepes du Nord knowing that a 5-star from Yelpers meant some seriously good food. This crepe-obsessed family was excited! And, we were not let down…crepes filled with chicken/goat cheese/asparagus, prosciutto de parma/arugula/ricotta cheese, and raspberries/Nutella and fresh whipped cream…washed down with housemade lingonberry soda. And, what a quaint section of the financial district…so European (complete with an authentic Irish pub tucked amongst the towering high-rises).
Our excellent WTC tour guide, Chris…he just escaped the building in time.
We returned to officially enter Three of Cups into our family’s pizza competition. Their Margherita pizza shot straight to second place…coming close, but not ousting Lombardi’s from their first place ranking. After dinner we hopped on the subway to Times Square…to see lights and an improv comedy show at Chicago City Limits. We were still chuckling about the last kid-friendly show we saw here several years ago. The shows here have a consistent formula, but vary in the level of comedic talent and quality of crowd participation. This time didn’t bring us quite as much laughter, but it was still a worthy evening…
DAY 4 – INDEPENDENCE DAY!
I believe it’s appropriate to use the adjectives “frickin’” and “sweltering” to describe the state of New York City on the country’s 234th birthday. In fact, a record was set…it hasn’t been this hot on July 4th since 1973. After breakfast, the kids went on strike refusing to leave the air-conditioned room. Now that they are old enough to stay alone for awhile wearing their cell phone leashes, we parents are no longer deprived. This was the ideal time to introduce Lance to Greenwich Village…and Murray’s Cheese, and Palma Restaurant, and Milk & Cookies, and Cherry Lane Theater, and the quiet tree-lined streets lined with historical brownstones. Maybe he would fall in love as well. (He did.)
We stumbled upon one of the restaurants that was recommended by the food tour guide I met on my last visit…just in time for lunch. The The Little Owl is a teeny neighborhood eatery on Bedford Street…one of my favorite streets in the Village. Our scrumptious lunch included fresh tomato salad with housemade ranch dressing and gravy bangers served on cheese-encrusted mini-buns. I later found out that it’s not uncommon to wait two hours to eat here…hmmm, is it that good? I don’t think much of anything is good enough for me to be quite that patient…
While doing my afternoon Yelping, I got a message from a local who shared my taste in pizza and recommended some pizzerias to try while we were still in town. For dinner tonight we chose Pizza Gruppo in Alphabet City, just several blocks from our little village “sanctuary”. Another hole-in-the-wall (“tiny” seems to go hand-in-hand with most restaurants in NYC) that specializes in thin crust pizza…and, I mean “ultra” thin crust. If you like substance to your pizza (like Spencer), you probably won’t be a fan of this place…but, Lance, Sophie and I ranked Gruppo’s at third place (tied with Joe’s Pizza) in our cut-throat competition.
After years of traveling, most of my travel decisions tend to be spot on. However, the one where I decided not to listen to my travel book and instead took the advice of “Mario the Manager” at Sanctuary goes on record as one my worst decisions. Laziness courtesy of the day’s record temperatures – and an aversion to massive crowds – got the better of me. Rather than head to Williamsburg to watch the Macy’s firework show, I opted to believe Mario who assured me we would be able to see the 40,000 shells being launced in honor of our country from Sanctuary’s roof deck. WRONG, Mario! All we saw was pretty colored smoke…complete with mocking sound effects. I had to dig deep to find peace – for myself and Mario.
The colorful Times Square
Outside temperatures were starting to feel like the inside of an oven…and, the kids were fighting harder and harder against the expenditure of any energy. I managed to “convince” them to walk in the direction of some really good iced tea (and more dumplings) this (very late) morning. Yaya Tea Garden was not a place we would have found had it not been for Yelp…definitely a local hangout. We all ordered cold drinks – Japanese sodas or fruit-infused iced tea. I wasn’t brave enough to try the “gel” additive (described as being similar to Jello)…maybe next time. Even though we were forewarned by previous Yelpers – and used 100% of our intellectual prowess – we still ate the dang rice balls wrong. The pathetic thing is that we had been discussing how intelligent we be until the girl behind the counter announced across the room – “Oh…you are eating your rice balls wrong!” It’s true…all of us are technically challenged.
The allure of the next stop motivated my kids to venture out into the oven yet again and walk several blocks to the city’s “Bargain District”. They have never forgotten Economy Candy from their visit several years ago. At last Sophie could resolve her deap-seated “candy envy” over Spencer’s licorice strings of years gone by. I only allowed myself to buy candy I rarely, if ever, saw in stores…violet pastilles, a chocolate covered sesame bar, Zotz, and sour cherry gum. Lance, of course, stuck with his all-time favorite…malted milk balls.
Buying the goods at Economy Candy
The sign of an stellar restaurant is one that can lure me back for a second (and – unheard of – third) visit on the same trip. Three of Cups gets that rare distinction. It also helped put my kids in the right frame of mind to hop on the underground sauna (AKA…subway) and sweat on the grass while watching “The French Connection” at Bryant Park. I had to own the “insane” label they were slapping on me about midway through the movie. There was absolutely no air flow amongst the hundreds of moviegoers sitting on the lawn and…my apologies to any old movie buffs, but the movie was just bad. About halfway through, I surrendered, we woke up Spencer and went in search of water.
There was actually a sane reason we chose to visit New York City in the middle of summer…Lance had to work. While he attended meetings this morning, the kids and I braved the subway on our own (successfully!) and found the Apple Store on 5th Avenue. Spencer and I were both surprised that it wasn’t much different that the one in San Diego, so it was a short (air conditioned) visit. All three of us were more than willing to step inside the also air-conditioned FAO Schwartz right next door to play for a bit. The massive amount of toys in this place is truly mind boggling. And, we all had to wonder what kind of parent would buy their kid a giant stuffed animals that cost as much as a small used car. As we left, the kids and I couldn’t resist getting a picture with the living toy soldier guarding the front door…I’m sure he’s counting the days until he graduates college and moves onto to bigger and better assignments.
We couldn’t resist…
Sophie and I forced Spencer to join us for a little “dessert” before lunch at Abercrombie & Fitch on 5th Avenue – a mini-shopping excursion for Sophie and the Abercrombie catalog in the flesh for me! (My Facebook status update that afternoon…“1. I’d love to do laundry on THAT washboard!; and, 2. Please don’t speak…it’ll ruin the fantasy.”) I was so excited to introduce the kids to one of my very favorite restaurants in the city – Radiance Tea House. As usual in intense moments of passion, my refinement takes a field trip…hence, I prepared them for the “best frickin’ dumplings” that will ever grace their mouths. They agreed…and, added miso soup to the “best frickin’” list. In Spencer’s words…“Oh my God, I’d move to New York City for this place.” I was thrilled when Lance was able to join us and have his own mouth graced.
Time for our afternoon rest…I wish I could be disciplined enough to adopt this practice at home. When the tea and dumplings wore off, Lance and I walked a few blocks to our next Yelp find – Pommes Frittes, home of authentic Belgian fries. After we watched a skateboarder plow down an eccentric old guy who proceeded to come completely unglued, we ordered fries to feed a family of 12 (to go) and narrowed it down to four dipping sauces. We sure enjoyed the small dent we made in the fry pile…
Ahhh…an adults only night. An off-off-Broadway comedy production at Cherry Lane Theater - Nunsense! – and a Heavenly dinner at Palma Restaurant. We laughed at the play and moaned (with pleasure) at the dinner…
The off-off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village…a must see!
Another day of meetings for Lance…another day of navigating the subway for the rest of us. Today Spencer proved that he is finally paying enough attention to make himself useful…hurray for 15 year olds! Together we managed to navigate our way to Battery Park inside an air-conditioned movie theater…just as the previews started. We girls (and my sensitive husband who would be meeting up with us later) wanted some vampiric love and opted for Eclipse. The boy was lusting for action and went solo to see The Last Airbender”. The movies could have been as bad as The French Connection and we wouldn’t have cared…we were just grateful for a step out of the outdoor sauna.
We were in the neighborhood of another pizza place that had been recommended by the pizza loving local Yelper…if we could just find it. Tucked away down a pedestrian alley in the same quaint area as Crepes du Nord, Adrienne’s Pizza Bar was the temporary setting for all the World Cup enthusiasts in the immediate vicinity. The bad news…the air conditioning was broken. Maybe that explains our less-than-satisfactory experience here…I’m sure it was the cause of the way less-than-perfect service, but I’m not quite sure how it could have impacted the seriously average pizza. Rectangle? Airy crust? No, thank you! The good news…Spain won.
World Cup enthusiasts at Adrienne’s Pizza Bar
Lance almost melted in subway on the way home. We made it back to the room for our afternoon rest just before he suffered the same fate as the Wicked Witch of the West. After a quick shower, he went in search of a massage. He came back an hour later a new man…just in time to save our offspring. Close quarters and triple-digit temps were taking their toll on all of us. It was pretty ironic that I was taking a walk outside to “cool off”…but, it was exactly what I needed to get over my disgruntlement at missing out on Banjo Jim’s. We are out of time…tomorrow we return home to our blessedly overcast city.
On the journey home I always take a moment to absorb what I learned on my latest wander…
On a shallow note…New York City brings out the addict in me. And, Yelp is my dealer of choice. As soon as I arrive, I start planning each day’s lunch and dinner in order to maximize each culinary experience. It’s more than just the food itself…it’s the people who prepare and serve the food with an artistic passion, the setting where you savor it, and, of course, the divine food itself made from the freshest of the city’s ingredients. Thank goodness I walk a lot when I’m here…
More East Village graffiti…
On a more spiritual level…on this journey I fully grasped the concept that places have spirits. While I’ve always felt that a city, town, community, or neighborhood is influenced by the collective spirit of those who reside there, I now believe it goes much deeper than that. I believe there is a native spirit residing in the place that was there long before people…and, it attracts those kindred souls that are listening. The spirit of a place influences everything…its collective priorities, the architecture, the type of restaurants and stores (and the employees who work there), the vibe. Large cities seem to have a “master spirit” that divides itself into segments, each with its own unique personality. Here you can see and feel the artsy bohemian feel of East and West Villages, the more conservative business vibe of Midtown and Wall Street, and the old money of the Upper East and West Sides.
And, finally…New York is frickin’ hot in July.
New York City…a city with a vibrant history and international flavor; home to a diverse population, many who hold tight to their ethnicity and the art of the specialty; artistic and intellectual; seasons that generate a passion for weather. My spirit thrives here…
A different kind of graffiti…I love NYC!