Only in New York City is a slice of pizza so emblematic—and crisp and cheesy—whether it's a dollar slice, neighborhood standby or a new-school classic complete with cup-and-char pepperoni.
But pizza is only one NYC staple you have to try while you’re within city limits. Sure, you might end up with the conundrum of spoiling your enjoyment of these foods anywhere but NYC, but just remember that Katz’s Deli delivers nationwide. Browse through these NYC originals and start making your list of what to enjoy first. —nycgo staff
NYC background: Pizza can be traced back to Naples, Italy, but the distinctly American version we know and love was born in New York City. In the late 1800s, Neapolitan-immigrant bakers adapted their native Neapolitan-style pizza (small, delicate, soupy-centered pies cooked quickly in ultrahot, wood-fired ovens) to their new ovens in the City (coal ones that burned at a slightly lower temperature and with a drier heat). The coal ovens produced a crisper product, which would eventually become larger to better accommodate by-the-slice sales.
Signature properties: Let’s define a slice as a plain slice, which is what everyone else outside NYC calls a “cheese slice”: no toppings; just crust, sauce and cheese. A great New York slice, then, is perfectly balanced among these three constituent elements; no single piece should dominate. The crust should be crisp yet still flexible enough to fold lengthwise as you eat. The sauce should have a balance of sweetness and acidity, and the cheese should be of high-enough quality that it melts oozingly on the slice, pulling away in strings when you bite. Once all that’s in place, you can begin to worry about toppings. (Note: most New Yorkers will brook no more than two toppings on a slice or pie.)
NYC background: Today you can find bagels at chain restaurants and supermarkets around the world, and New York City is a big reason why. Jewish immigrants from Europe brought the doughnut-shaped breakfast breads to New York by the early 20th century. Part of the City’s appetizing tradition, bagels are most properly enjoyed as part of a morning ritual with such accoutrements as cream cheese and lox.
Signature properties: Unlike other cities’ bagels, which may resemble standard rolls with holes in them, New York bagels are boiled and baked to achieve a shiny finish and chewy consistency. They’re generally lightly sweetened with malt or honey. Some fanatics are convinced you can only make them with NYC water.
NYC background: Cheesecake has existed for centuries, but New York City’s signature take came into being after cream cheese was invented in the nearby town of Chester, New York, in 1872. German immigrant Arnold Reuben (famous for the sandwich that bears his name) asserted that he created the first modern New York cheesecake in 1929, eventually putting it on menus at his two Midtown restaurants: Reuben’s and the Turf. Another that might seek a slice of the credit, at least for the dessert’s popularization: mobster-hangout Lindy’s (honored in Guys and Dolls), also in Midtown, which hired away Reuben’s pastry chef.
Signature properties: New York cheesecake is known to be dense and creamy (with extra egg yolk in the cream cheese), which distinguishes it from its Italian cousin. The classic rendition is on a thin cookie- or graham-cracker crust and served sans toppings.
4. General Tso’s Chicken
NYC background: Chinese restaurants—or, more precisely, American-Chinese restaurants—were not always so ubiquitous. Their popularity spread in the 1960s and ’70s thanks to restaurateurs in New York City and San Francisco tinkering with flavor profiles. We might cede crab Rangoon to our Left Coast friends, but we’ll claim the sticky-sweet, deep-fried General Tso’s chicken for ourselves. Peng Chang-kuei first concocted a version of the dish back in Taiwan in the 1950s, and then served it in his NYC restaurant in 1973; stalwart Shun Lee Palace beat him to the punch menu-wise, though—its chef, T.T. Wang, fashioned a sweetened interpretation in 1972. Check out the film The Search for General Tso or Jennifer 8. Lee’s Fortune Cookie Chroniclesfor more history.
Signature properties: There are battered and fried chunks of chicken. There’s a scattering of chilies. There’s usually broccoli, a sop to those holding fast to the idea that the dish contains healthful properties. But mostly it’s the corn-starch-thickened sauce—with its sour, sweet and spicy flavors—that makes folks salute the General. By the way, there was a General Tso from the Hunan province—one Zuo Zongtang—who tamped down various rebellions in the 1800s (no official word on his culinary review).
5. Egg Cream
NYC background: It’s more or less universally acknowledged that New York City is the birthplace of the egg cream—a fizzy, chocolaty drink that’s a distant, less famous cousin of the milkshake. The Encyclopedia of New York City pinpoints the Lower East Side as the neighborhood and the 1920s as the time, narrowing down the likely inventor to either actor Boris Thomashevsky or candy-store owner Louis Auster.
Signature properties: A “real” egg cream, say the purists, must be made with Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup; no other brand, no other flavor. It’s that, milk and seltzer in the “correct” proportions (yep—neither egg nor cream). It’s supposed to have a frothy head at the top of the glass, akin to that of a beer. Perhaps egg cream creation is a dying art, but you can still get one at several venerable NYC outposts, including those listed below.
6. Pastrami and Corned Beef
NYC background: In the second half of the 19th century, Jewish immigrants from Romania brought pastrami to New York City. Corned beef was also transplanted to New York in the 1800s, via either Jewish or Irish immigrants. Regardless of how these foods arrived stateside, the New York–style deli is the place to score them.
Signature properties: What’s the difference between pastrami and corned beef, you ask? Both are typically made from beef—brisket for corned beef; navel, or beef “plate,” for pastrami—though the pastrami treatment can also be given to turkey or duck. Both meats are cured (brined in a seasoned salt-water solution), but corned beef is then boiled, while pastrami usually gets another round of seasoning on the outside and is then smoked—imparting a more peppery flavor. Either way, both cuts are tender, and for many it’s hard to choose a favorite. The meats are best eaten warmed and piled high on rye bread, with no distraction other than spicy mustard (though for corned beef, the popular Reuben sandwich successfully tacks on sauerkraut, swiss cheese and Russian dressing). Kosher delis in NYC don’t skimp on the portions, so bring a friend.
7. Street Meat
NYC background: In the past couple of decades, “street meat” has made inroads against hot dogs and a slice of pizza as NYC’s favorite on-the-go lunchtime meal. Its rise is largely attributed to the Halal Guys—originally at 53rd and 6th—who first set up shop back in the early 1990s and became instantly recognizable thanks to their trademark yellow shirts, quickly assembled platters and simple motto (“We are different”). The Egyptian immigrant who founded the cart claims he was the first in the City to sell mobile halal food, and his company has managed to turn the humble meat-on-rice business into a burgeoning nationwide brick-and-mortar chain.
Signature properties: Besides a choice of well-spiced chicken, chopped lamb or beef gyro or—at Greek carts—pork souvlaki, key components include rice (basmati, yellow, perhaps Technicolor orange) and the real draw: white and hot sauces. The first of those condiments, typically mayonnaise based—though occasionally made with yogurt—in particular is said to have mystical qualities; the piquant hot sauce tends to be a harissa-like red or a jalapeño-and-cilantro-spiked green.
8. Chopped Cheese (or Chop Cheese)
NYC Background: This humble bodega sandwich was first popular in parts of Harlem, the Bronx and Queens before it found itself trending online, and soon, as a menu item in restaurants. The sandwich’s sharp rise in popularity launched a thousand think pieces about class, gentrification and culture, with locals criticizing blogs that presented the chopped cheese as a new trend and taking aim at restaurants selling the sandwich, once known for its affordability, for over $10.
Signature properties: Ground beef and onions are chopped together on a flat griddle, topped with slices of cheese, slid onto a toasted hero and layered with lettuce, tomato and your choice of condiments–usually ketchup, mayo and hot sauce.
Where to get it: Most New Yorkers agree that the sandwich was created at Hajji’s (Blue Sky Deli), where’s it’s still the best in the City, but any bodega or corner store should be able to indulge your chop cheese cravings. —Emma Diab
9. Coffee Regular
NYC background: Ask longtime New Yorkers, and they’ll tell you that a “coffee regular” is a coffee with milk and sugar. These days, you’ll probably get just that at an old diner or one of the City’s many street carts—but NYC’s changing coffee culture is becoming more attuned to fancy coffee shops where espresso drinks are all the rage and you’ll get a blank stare for ordering “regular.” There’s also the matter of which region really owns the term; some Bostonians would have you believe it was theirs all along.
Signature properties: Coffee with milk and sugar. That’s it.
10. Black-and-White Cookie
NYC background: The exact origin of the black-and-white cookie is unknown, but some historical evidence suggests that the local version was derived from so-called half-moon cookies that were invented in Utica, New York, in the early 20th century. Whatever the case, it’s firmly in the City’s food pantheon: who can forget Jerry Seinfeld exclaiming that we “look to the cookie,” as a means to encourage racial harmony and acceptance? And a later Seinfeld episode finds Bette Midler demanding the famous confection after suffering a softball injury in Central Park.
Signature properties: The cookie is actually a “drop cake,” in which extra flour is added to cupcake batter and baked into a cookie shape. The result, spongelike and cakey, is then smothered in chocolate and vanilla frostings. Some bakeries offer more fondant-like frostings that are easily transported and packaged, while others go creamier and fluffier. If you’re the type to snap the cookie in half and only eat the side you like, you’ll be happy to learn that some bakeries make all-white and all-black variations.
11. Bacon, Egg and Cheese on a Roll
NYC background: A New York Times article from way back in 1910 describes actors munching on fried egg sandwiches during their work breaks; even 100 years ago, it seems NYC was a busy place. And while you can find the sandwich practically everywhere, Pete Wells’ more recent Times article sums up New Yorkers’ special relationship with the item—it’s an ideal breakfast for a City on the go—and their demands for its perfect form.
Signature properties: A classic BEC is served on a roll with fried eggs, American cheese and crispy bacon. How you order it is up to you—whether you ask for a baconeggandcheesesaltpepperketchup all in one breath, smother it in hot sauce or swear by the addition of grape jelly.
Where to get it:Egg Shop, Piccolo Café, Queens Comfort, many bodegas —AP