Most people know New York City is the country’s cultural melting pot, but not everyone would guess that foreign-born New Yorkers outnumber the entire population of Chicago. It is no wonder the city has almost as many Chinatowns as it does boroughs. NYC’s three million immigrants, the most of any city in the world, often cluster into specific enclaves. From food to fashion, the best way to experience the Big Apple is a journey through its many ethnic neighborhoods.
Mulberry Street claims century-old restaurants and a mob-hit history, but the Little Italy of modern Manhattan now feels more like a ride on “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland. For a less touristic Italian experience, head north of Yankee Stadium to Arthur Avenue. Green, white and red flags wave proudly as family-owned shops line the streets selling cured meat, fresh cheese, homemade pasta and brightly colored pastries. Step into the main dining room at Zero Otto Nove for walls painted in the trompe l’oeil style that evoke images of a southern Italian village, or visit its sibling restaurant Roberto’s to discover why Zagat voters rated it the borough’s top restaurant for 2014. For dessert, honor The Godfather quote, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” by watching the Madonia Brothers Bakery squeeze sweet cream into a pastry shell for a freshly made cannoli. If looking to take something home, crowd into the long and narrow Casa Della Mozzarella for deli meats and hand-pulled cheese that would make an Italian grandmother proud.
Richmond Hill, Queens
Guyana, a small country in northern South America, supplies NYC with its fifth largest foreign-born population, but the ethnic heritage of the Guyanese splits between Afro-Caribbean and South Asian descent. Stretching down Liberty Avenue, Little Guyana primarily features the latter, and the Asian influence makes for shops selling colorful fabrics, sari dresses, exotic spices and Guyana’s famous mango chutney. Pictures of the Kaieteur Falls, the nation’s top natural treasure, decorate the walls of many businesses, and the long lines at Singh’s Roti epitomize why it is a top dining choice for what the uninitiated might describe as Indian-style fajitas. The Little Guyana Bake Shop is an equally popular place with enough business to warrant two locations, though their sluggish service makes a spoiled Bushwick barista look like a mongoose. Unfortunately, none of the local bars has enough dark humor to serve alcohol-spiked Kool-Aid in honor of notorious cult leader Jim Jones.
Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
The Soviet Union loosened its emigration policy during its final decades, and if you migrated from an ice bucket like Russia or Ukraine, you too would feel the draw of beachfront Little Odessa in Brooklyn. Just like the crowded Black Sea beaches back home, Brighton will not win any Dr. Beach awards anytime soon. Still, a march down breezy Brighton Beach Avenue conjures up images of the motherland with colorful characters, stuffed pirozhok, Cyrillic signage and boutiques that offer a gaudy mix of Putin coffee mugs, fake fur coats, animal print boots and the type of loud shirts that recall summers in the real Odessa. Whether your vice is vareniki or vodka, boardwalk spots like the related Tatiana Grill and Tatiana Restaurant and Nightclub have you covered.
Jackson Heights, Queens
Any true exploration of NYC’s ethnic enclaves will involve the 7 train, and the Jackson Heights stop is home to both Little Colombia and Little India. With the subway tracks hanging overhead, a loud and shady walk east on Roosevelt Avenue takes travelers through a Colombian neighborhood once dominated by money laundering drug dealers in the 1990s. Today, the frantic street booms with salsa and cumbia music, soccer-hungry watering holes, discount retailers and immigrants proudly wearing James Rodriquez jerseys. The neighborhood, shared by a large Mexican and Ecuadorian contingent, best honors Colombian cuisine with the Arepa Lady, a late-night food truck legend serving up her beloved flatbread with meat, cheese and other savory accompaniments.