One of the best trips I’ve led in a long time was a tour of Chinatown and Little Italy in Manhattan a couple weeks back. The day began with Rita, myself, and six middle and high school students exploring the recently-completed World Trade Center Oculus. The space, while magnificent, also feels somewhat familiar, perhaps because it’s been in the works for so many years now.
That same feeling of familiarity could not be extended to Chinatown, which we walked to afterwards. Although we had several set destinations, many of the day’s best finds were unplanned, discovered by a curious student’s “what’s that?” We sampled sweets at Aji Ichiban, an Asian candy purveyor, before turning down Doyer’s Street, nicknamed “Bloody Angle” for its one-time notoriety as America’s most dangerous road.
We walked by a pagoda roof, hucksters peddling cheap goods, and fish sellers who displayed fish—both living and dead—on the sidewalk. Before stopping for some morning dumplings, we walked into a specialty chopstick store, where the manager gave us a free tutorial and allowed us to try our newfound skills using some of their custom sets.
Nowadays, the shift from Chinatown to Little Italy is gradual, at least until you get as far north as Di Palo’s Fine Foods. Inside, as a woman interviewed customers for an oral history of the longstanding Italian market, employees cut slices of prosciutto and parmesan for us to nibble on. Our next stop was Lombardi’s Pizza, which claims to be America’s oldest. The crust was thin and crackly, and the students said the Italian sodas were on point, too.
Our final stop was Caffe Roma, where those who were not yet stuffed bought cannolis and other treats. On our long walk back to World Trade, I began thinking about how adventurous the students had been when trying new foods. There wasn’t anything, from Chinatown to Little Italy, that the students refused to try. It’s this type of curiosity that will keep students asking questions and wanting to learn more—a trait that will no doubt help them in the classroom. And, as we learned that day, it can also lead to some incredible finds.