I was standing on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker in the heart of Greenwich Village looking for Bob Dylan. Not the gray eminence who thought recording a Christmas album was a good idea, but the kid fresh out of Minnesota whose address was a flophouse steps from Washington Square Park. • In a few minutes I would discover just how close to the mark I was in my time-traveling quest. Susan Volchok, a licensed New York City guide working that day for an outfit called Foods of New York Tours, gathered her charges on the sidewalk opposite 92 and 94 MacDougal, noting that the two row houses had been bought and made over into one bigger house by a more solvent Dylan in 1967 and sheltered him and his family until 1973. It was the first of many cultural factoids and culinary tidbits I and 11 people I'd never met would be treated to over the course of a congenial three-hour stroll on a cool spring day.
The Central Village/SoHo Food and Culture Tour I'd paid $46 to join kicked off from an atmospheric bar and restaurant called Caffe del Mare and wound its way through streets and lanes echoing with the voices of tenement-dwelling Italian immigrants, Miles Davis' trumpet and Jimi Hendrix's guitar. The air was rife with mostly Italian cooking spiced with French, Indian, Middle Eastern and Latin grace notes.
Along our meandering route were seven designated tasting stops where we sampled mostly delicious morsels and a really outstanding mojito. Italian food carried the day, although the chocolate walnut tarts we wolfed down on the sidewalk outside our last stop, a French bakery called Once Upon a Tart, made for a swoony finale. I'll list those stops in order, but in these paragraphs I'll concentrate on the standouts.
The first big wow of the afternoon was for the Bolognese sauce at Monte's, a long-running institution on MacDougal that some may remember as Joey's favorite first-date restaurant on the sitcom Friends. More important is that chef and owner Pietro Mosconi, a two-time James Beard Foundation honoree, presides over this unpretentious gem with the easy grace of a man who knows exactly what he's doing and loves it. His Bolognese, compounded of beef, veal, pork and porcini mushrooms slow-cooked (for five hours!) in wine and two rich meat stocks, was such a hit that a couple of us considered defecting from the tour and ordering lunch.
We resisted and walked on up MacDougal, turning into quiet Minetta Lane and detouring briefly into even quieter Minetta Street, where Serpico lived, both in the movie and in real life, on our way to Bellavitae, a trattoria famed for its astonishing pantry and its celestial wine list. There, as a battery of cooks prepped for the evening meal, we tucked into a cheesecake like no other: a ricotta dream with the texture of a fine, soft Brie and the savor of a creamy slice of heaven. I liked the place so much I returned later that day for dinner and thus added a new favorite to my short list of Manhattan restaurants.
Our next stop was not a tasting but full of flavor nonetheless. Although it wouldn't open for hours, we followed Volchok into the cavernous basement club called Cafe Wha?, the hallowed ground on which Dylan made his New York debut and Hendrix later strutted his stuff with the house band. I swear it gave me goose bumps.
Our route, punctuated by that fine mojito at a restaurant called Cuba, wound us through Village streets and Washington Square Park (once a marshy paupers' burial ground, Volchok noted) and eventually to Houston Street, where we sampled homemade capellini with pesto at Raffetto's, which I now believe to be the pasta shop of the gods, before crossing the street into SoHo. There we visited Joe's Dairy, a tiny shrine to tradition where lots and lots of divine mozzarella is handmade daily in a stovetop kettle and a portion of the batch is smoked in the basement. Standing on the sidewalk to make way for a steady stream of customers, most of them older women speaking Italian, we sampled the smoked mozzarella with a side of sun-dried tomatoes in fragrant olive oil, bemoaning the fact that Joe's was not situated around the corner from any of our homes.
Half a block farther on, the party broke up with those luscious tarts I mentioned and a richly deserved cheer for our affable and knowledgeable guide.
John Bancroft is a Florida freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel.