I have called three neighborhoods in New York home over the last five years: Soho, Tribeca, and west Harlem. In Soho, I had an octogenarian neighbor who liked to sit on the stoop on warm days and talk about the Italian roots of the neighborhood. In Tribeca, I found small places among flashy restaurants that became my day-to-day staples. In west Harlem, the great local tradition of brunch (donning your Sunday best and raising a cocktail or two in the afternoon) was an easy one to adopt.
Each of these neighborhood has tastes worth traveling for; I do whenever a craving hits.
Alidoro: Since 1986 this Italian specialty sandwich shop has been making sandwiches to order. You choose from a list of Italian names — such as Fellini (sopressata, fresh mozzarella, hot peppers, arugula) or Brando (smoked chicken breast, provolone, sweet roasted peppers, arugula) — and the sandwich is made in front of you, with all meats sliced fresh and thin. The process isn’t a quick one, and a line often forms out the door and onto Sullivan Street at lunchtime. Arrive early, or late, to skip the queue. While your sandwich is assembled, check out the amusing signs posted throughout this teeny, cash-only sandwich shop: If you don’t see it, we don’t have it! or Don’t ask me what my favorite sandwich is!
Arturo’s Pizza: In this coal-oven pizza joint dating back to 1957, the waiter might take your order one moment, and don a fedora to sing a number accompanied by live piano the next. The best tables are in the front, main room in this vintage restaurant, where whole pies are served with remarkable consistency. Open late, with live jazz and an unfussy interior, this local landmark has managed to stay somewhat off the radar and is filled with the same familiar faces. When the weather warms up, sidewalk tables are an ideal spot to split a pepperoni pizza and sip cold bottles of Peroni.
Arcade Bakery: When I lived in Tribeca, I was running errands one day and started to smell the most alluring baked goods. But there was no bakery sight. The same aroma was there again a few days later, outside of a nondescript office building. Arcade Bakery soon opened in the ground-floor arcade of that office building, filling the space with the scent of fresh-baked croissants, focaccia, baguettes, and more. Walking in the door, before even getting near your first bite, is pure pleasure. Only open on weekdays, this bakery is a reason for a special trip to Tribeca. Aim for the morning — the ham and cheese croissants sell out fast.
Square Diner: In a neighborhood where at times everything feels new, this classic, no-fuss diner dating back to 1945 is a refreshing choice. The small space is filled with red booths and a long counter with permanent, built-in stools. This is the spot for ordering a big three-egg omelette and home fries, and downing a cup of bottomless coffee while reading the newspaper. Outdoor tables are a lovely spot on a warm day, whether it’s for some simple fried eggs and toast or a fantastic take on a Greek salad.
Vinateria: This cozy corner spot is the type of restaurant everyone wants in their neighborhood. It’s ideal at any time of day, from brunch to a late supper. The service is warm and hospitable. It has the kind of dishes that become favorites you will crave, and return just to order the same dish again and again. For me, one of those dishes is the French toast, cut thick, and served with vanilla bean whipped cream and fruit. It’s also part of a fantastic brunch special, that includes a mimosa or bloody mary in the $18.50 price tag. With complimentary sparkling water on tap and a big scattering of outdoor tables, I am very happy to have this restaurant on my corner.
Boulevard: The first time I walked into Boulevard, soon after moving to Harlem, it was maybe noon on a Saturday. The incredibly warm host was sincerely apologetic — she didn’t have any tables for two, and probably wouldn’t be able to squeeze us in for the rest of the day, the wait list was already so lengthy. Next time, I made a reservation in advance. When you order the pan-fried chicken, this restaurant will ask what pieces you prefer — breast or thigh? How about a leg? — and serve it in a basket with two fluffy buttermilk biscuits. It’s dangerous having this place so close to my apartment.