What to Do: Little Italy and China Town
I subtitle this section “cheap stuff and good eats” but wanted to clarify that the good eats are not necessarily all that cheap. Also, the term “China Town” is a bit misleading because so many of the residents there are actually from Vietnam, Korea and other parts of Asia.
The good news is that Little Italy still has some Italians and is growing littler by the day-much of what used to be known as Little Italy has been consumed by the ever-expanding China Town such that Little Italy is mostly made up of a single street now. It is all still good fun, so please read on.
From the subway station (good directions are here), follow your nose, because the best thing about the area known as Little Italy is the food. Go around a meal time to enjoy the place at its best, because most of the traditional businesses have something to do with food.
As for snacks, keep an eye out for the gelato vendors everywhere. Each stand has some different flavors, and even some variation on prices, so poke around. Folks were a bit stingy with samples, but the stuff was very tasty and went down well on a hot day. There is not much room to sit and enjoy, so smaller children may not be as happy with this as larger ones.
A step up the food chain are the few remaining Italian groceries. These are well worth entering simply for the aromas inside: musky cheeses hanging from the ceiling, salty Italian ham being sliced and olives in brine that make your nose crinkle up. There are lots of interesting and sort of exotic tinned foods from abroad, more varieties of pasta than a Sopranos buffet and twenty million types of olive oil. It is hard not to buy something to snack on and something more to take home.
At the top of the heap are the many restaurants lining the street. Most offer both inside and on nice days outside tables. Prices vary but while some are severely expensive most are in the reasonable band by New York standards. Many have set menus for a fixed price that would fit families nicely. Choose your degree of restuarantness: some seem more like stage sets with a Hollywood Italian theme while others seemed more of a family-run small business where all the cooks are named Vinny. Except for the expensive joints, kid friendly is the word here.
This area is an interesting, chaotic, messy, fascinating jumble of restaurants, small stores and Asian groceries. It is the go-to place if you need (or just want to see) cow intestines for tonight's dinner, some dodgy electronic goods or those gotta have “I Love NY” T-shirts. The shirts, after some spirited bargaining, were the cheapest here in the city.
As for restaurants, there are ever so many. You should let your nose and eyes be your guide, as they vary a lot in terms of cleanliness, price and offerings. Poke around and you will find places not much different from the China Palace in your neighborhood stripmall with beef and broccoli and General Tsao's chicken for everyone, while right next door will be another place without an English menu serving up food identical to what you'd get in the market in Shanghai. Neither place is for everyone but between the extremes there is something for everyone. Follow our tips about eating abroad for best results.
The markets and groceries are on the same spectrum. You do owe it to yourself to check out the wet markets, where everything that swims, crawls or once did is for sale. Much of the stuff is alive waiting for a buyer, and so some smaller children may not be comfortable with that.
There are also an unbelievable number of small shops selling electronics, souvenirs and occasionally some very suspicious looking DVDs.
As for the souvenirs, as mentioned they were pretty much the same stuff for sale in other parts of New York but usually cheaper. Do bargain, and feel free to politely walk away if the price is not right, because three shops down the same stuff will be for sale.
With the electronics, I can say that I can't look at a stereo and tell if it was stolen or not, nor can I look at a DVD player labeled “Ranasonic” or “Coby” and tell if it really is as good as one for three times the price labeled “Panasonic” or “Sony.” Maybe you can but I sure wouldn't use my credit card to buy it in this neighborhood. Note that the further you walk away from the center of China Town near the Canal Street subway station, the more run down the neighbor seems to get. Use your own judgment, but in our case we ran out of courage before we ran out of neighborhood and turned back.