It may be a big city, but New York is renowned for its small businesses. Culture Trip’s celebrates unique finds, from fashion outposts to hobby shops and restaurants where grandmothers cook their native cuisines.
Local favorites such as Katz’s Deli or Gray’s Papaya have become cultural landmarks akin to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Yet with all the banks, pharmacies and chains clamoring for your attention block after block, it can be easy to overlook all the city has to offer. That’s where Culture Trip comes in: we celebrate 20 independent businesses across New York’s five boroughs that bring New Yorkers unique food, experiences, products and more.
Art, fashion and design
Born and raised in Bed-Stuy, Kai Avent-deLeon became a third-generation business owner when she opened Sincerely, Tommy, a boutique run out of a brownstone, in 2014. In a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying, shopping at Avent-deLeon’s clothing shop supports a locally owned black business as well as emerging womenswear brands. Some examples include ELLISS, a London-based label that uses organic and recycled materials and ensures all its employees are paid a living wage, and BEVZA, a Ukrainian womenswear brand, featuring flowing, ankle-length silk dresses, designed by Svitlana Bevza. An exposed-brick wall highlights artwork from a rotating cast of local talent, and its coffee bar serves a selection of local brews.
Ali Arain was a corporate lawyer who loved design when he recruited Greg Cocarro, an interior designer, to add a sense of ethos to his Williamsburg store in 2013. BEAM has been curating the best of home goods and accessories ever since. Its mission is to provide products from established brands as well as emerging artists and designers, from a vintage Daniel Gluck coffee table to custom couches from The Comfortable Couch Company. The selection is diverse but always chic.
It started as a busy lunch spot. And then, as the neighborhood changed over the years, owner Marvin Cochran shifted the focus of the store started by his father-in-law from a confectionery to a hobby shop. Unassembled kits of anything with a motor are stacked from the floor to the ceiling, while vintage planes are suspended from strings above. Rudy Oest founded his eponymous store in 1939, and its soda-fountain days can still be gleaned from the wallpaper and the old-timey cash register acquired during World War II. Cochran took over his Astoria inheritance 30 years ago and nowadays caters to a clientele of connoisseurs looking for model airplanes, trains, tanks and cars.
Before the chopped cheese or the rainbow bagel or the [insert any number of trendy New York cultural cuisines], there was the egg cream, a simple beverage composed of milk, seltzer and chocolate syrup. Gem Spa, a historic newsstand open in the East Village since 1957, claims to be its inventor. But even without that distinction, this spot still has its reputation as a hangout for famous Beats, hippies and punks over its decades of service. The stand’s ripples can be felt through the pop-culture ages: Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac hung out here, the former calling the site a “nerve center” of the city in a 1969 poem; Patti Smith recalls long-time lover Robert Mapplethorpe buying her an egg cream in her memoir Just Kids (2010); the facade of the building is featured on the back cover of the New York Dolls’ self-titled debut; and Jean-Michel Basquiat named a 1982 painting Gem Spa.
During the five and a half years Kulwinder ‘Jani’ Singh worked for Yellow Cab, he came to appreciate the importance of a place where drivers could take a break, grab something to eat and use the bathroom. In 1994, he opened Punjabi as a vegetarian, 24-hour deli and grocery in order to service the community of cabbies in need of a respite. Known for its low prices, Punjabi has won a wider audience – you don’t have to double-park your Toyota Camry on a break from Uber to enjoy the flavorful kala chana, crispy samosas or sweet laddu.
Peppa’s bills itself as having the No. 1 jerk chicken in NYC. While this type of puffery is not unusual in a city with at least 2,000 “best slice” pizza places, this unassuming Caribbean spot lives up to the hype. Owner Gavin Hussey, affectionately known as ‘Peppa,’ grew up in St Andrew Parish, Jamaica, where he honed his culinary chops cooking alongside his mother as they prepared meals for his 11 siblings. With a blend of secret spices, the chicken is deeply seasoned and then grilled until blackened to a perfect crisp. Try the house-made scotch-bonnet sauce for added heat, and cool down with some festival bread: a piece of fried, sweet dough that adds an extra layer of comfort to this cheap meal.
The first thing you notice about this Italian bakery is its vintage-style signage separating it from the newer businesses on Bushwick’s Knickerbocker Avenue. Circo’s has been serving up pastries since 1945 and has been owned by the same family, a father and his two sons, since 1973. With the family’s decades of practical experience – on top of the expertise children Salvatore and Anthony Pierdipino gained from a stint at the Culinary Institute of America – the birthday cakes don’t just look stunning; they’re delicious too.
Named after a town in the Sacred Valley, this Peruvian restaurant is cozy and dimly lit from inside arched window dressings, making it a great spot for date night. While there are a ton of other Peruvian restaurants in Jackson Heights that specialize solely in rotisserie chicken (pollos a la brasa), Urubamba offers a wider menu that includes not only a great roasted chicken but delicious Peruvian ceviche and jalea (fried fish), too. Friendly waitstaff are happy to explain unfamiliar items on the menu, such as tacu tacu, Peru’s answer to refried beans, or papas a la huancaína, boiled potatoes in a yellow cheese sauce (try it!). This place will have you dreaming of a trip to Machu Picchu.
The Bronx’s Little Italy resides along Arthur Avenue and is considered more authentic than its Manhattan counterpart. Opened in 1993, Casa Della Mozzarella not only has the best mozzarella in the neighborhood, it has been rated the best mozzarella in New York City by Zagat for more than a decade. The mozzarella is handmade each day by the father-son combo of Orazio and Carlo Carciotto; Orazio emigrated from Sicily without a word of English in his vocabulary. Come for the creamy cheese the place is named after, but don’t leave Casa without trying one of its signature sandwiches, the most popular of which is The Casa: mozzarella, prosciutto, sun-dried peppers and a balsamic glaze.
More than just a café, Mottley Kitchen is a neighborhood restaurant in the South Bronx that also hosts community-focused events, private dinners, a gallery space and a farm stand. The menu features coffee, pastries, breakfast, lunch and dinner options with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Every Saturday, Wassaic farmer George sells affordable, organic food from his family farm, General Cochran, and Boogie Down Books, led by Rebekah Shoaf, hosts a pop-up bookshop and book-reading series for children, teens and their educators and caretakers.
Following a visit to El Kiosko Boricua, his favorite empanada shack in Piñones, Puerto Rico, Empanology owner Jason Alicea decided to reinterpret the Latin snack staple by experimenting with creative fillings. “Bite-sized pockets of love” is how he bills his flaky pastries, which come in 46 different flavors including banana bread, Thanksgiving bite and chopped cheese. Alicea, a Bronx native, grew up helping his mother in the kitchen before attending the Institute of Culinary Education. Now, his company’s mission is to “bring the spirit of Puerto Rico to New York.”
What’s better than Grandma’s cooking? Answer: A team of nonnas (the Italian word for grandmothers) preparing meals from around the globe. So far, Nonnas of the World has featured recipes from Bangladesh, Belarus, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, France, Greece, Japan, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Pakistan, Poland, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela and of course Italy, among others. In July 2015, owner Joe Scaravella had an epiphany that his grandmother was the keeper of traditions within his family. He knew that she wasn’t alone as the matriarch in the family in passing down inherited customs, so to honor her legacy he began inviting grandmothers from around the world to cook at his restaurant. Make a reservation in advance – this tiny spot, easily accessible from Manhattan by the free Staten Island Ferry, fills up.
Two years after moving from Bosco Tre Casa in Naples, brothers Giuseppe and Pasquale Pappalardo opened Joe & Pat’s in 1960. It has long been Staten Island’s premier destination for cracker-thin pizza, served by the slice or in pie form. The secret to the signature crisp is a deep massage of the dough that takes six months to master. A slice features just the right amount of tomato sauce, and the mozzarella cheese is peppered generously atop.
What makes stepping into a used bookstore such a special experience is that you never know what rare find you might come across. Boasting a large assortment of second-hand titles, this bookstore-café is a pleasure to peruse. Co-owner Benjamin Friedman opened Topos in 2015 after working as a manager at St Mark’s Bookshop for more than a decade. The experience helped hone his eye for rare and unusual editions, which can be purchased alongside new books and enjoyed in front of a warm brew at the ample tables.
In the past few years, New York’s DIY spaces have been vanishing like Budweisers from the fridge at a house party. This all-ages venue is a vestige of a thriving music scene that is becoming harder and harder to engage. But while brick-and-mortar places disappear, bands continue to form, so there’s never a short supply of performers ready to hop on the local theater-style stage. With a near stranglehold on shows for up-and-coming acts, every night is a good night to check out a three-band bill featuring the best of the borough’s local talent. The spacious backyard makes for a communal meeting place to decompress between sets, and the cramped bar area hooks it up with the spiked seltzers.
a href=”https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/top-10-legendary-nyc-rappers/”>Hip-hop, a genre birthed in the Bronx, is inexorably associated with street style. When Run-DMC sang about their Adidas, the trio made sneakers part of the canon of cool. In the past 10 years, sneakerhead culture has become mainstream with everyone debating about the merits of dad shoes, chunky Filas and the Balenciagas that look like socks. Sneaker Bar has been the go-to place for new Nikes and old-school Air Jordans since 2012. The store specializes in shoes emblazoned with the swoosh logo, but don’t fret: you can still get Yeezys here, as well as other Adidas classics. Despite its name, Sneaker Bar isn’t all about footwear, it also covers apparel, hats and bags.
For a brief moment, the Bronx, a borough with nearly 1.5 million residents, was left without a general-interest bookstore after Barnes & Noble closed its doors in December 2016. That’s when borough native Noëlle Santos decided to open up Lit. Bar, an independent bookstore and wine bar. A meta-mural outside the shop features a young black girl spray-painting a message on the wall that reads, “Reach the World But Touch the Hood First.” Spacious library-style shelves display books that, as the store’s mission states, highlight diverse voices and “increase intellectual visibility in the Bronx.”
John Castellano, owner of Castellano’s House of Music, comes from a musical clan dating back five generations: his great-grandfather was a guitarist, and his grandfather was a multi-instrumentalist. John’s parents, “Mom & Pop,” opened the music store Bath Music in Brooklyn in 1965. In the ’80s, after a career jamming with Jimi Hendrix and auditioning a pre-fame Billy Joel, John moved to Staten Island to continue the tradition of educating youths in the arts. After students learn their instruments, they can level up at the two-week Castellano’s House of Music’s Summer Rock Band Camp, led by producer Tony Hanson at his home base of Fenix Studios.