Most tourists miss out on the gritty charms of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, whether out of disinterest or misguided fear. I know, because I was once one of them. Granted, the "outer boroughs" (minus Staten Island) are less glamorous than Manhattan, but they keep it real: no Disneyfication, overdevelopment or mass gentrification.
And it isn't like the outer boroughs are terra incognita. They've been immortalized in so many films -- The French Connection, Do the Right Thing, A Bronx Tale and Saturday Night Fever, to name a few classics -- it would take hours, maybe a whole Dog Day Afternoon, to name them all.
Spurred by a sense of discovery (and the fact that a few of my friends live in Brooklyn), I've slowly dipped my toes across the East River during visits to NYC. An adventurous spirit and a MetroCard will connect you to some of the city's most vibrant arts and cultural scenes, amazing eateries of every ethnicity imaginable, and loads of attractions and activities.
I recently spent a weekend at my buddy Jon's loft in "Billybush," a converted industrial zone straddling Williamsburg and Bushwick, populated by a mix of hipsters, Chinese merchants and Latin American street food and trinket vendors. My mission was to explore a unique highlight of each of the big three outer boroughs: sampling some of Brooklyn's famous pizza, taking in Queens' arts scene and catching a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.
A slice of Brooklyn
With New York-style pizza, as with most things in life, the really good stuff requires a bit of a shlep. Sure, there's a generic pizza joint every other block in the Big Apple, but for a slice of saucy, thin-crusted heaven, locals know that a pilgrimage is in order, usually to Brooklyn.
Although pizza first appeared stateside in Manhattan, that borough has developed a bum rap over the years. Its image has been somewhat rehabilitated lately, mainly by pizzerie that champion "authentic Neapolitan" pizza pies: Keste and the fine food emporium Eataly, among others. But for sheer volume of quality establishments, Brooklyn can't be beat.
Consider that famously impatient New Yorkers will stand "on line" for as long as two hours at the legendary DiFara's, where Dom DeMarco has been making each pie by hand for over 45 years.
The problem is getting people -- especially outer-borough-averse tourists -- to discover the area's pizza scene. For Tony Muia, a lifelong resident of Bensonhurst, the Italian enclave in southwest Brooklyn, this obstacle became the chance of a lifetime: quit his job and start up A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tours.
"I had travelled all over the world, and I realized that, when you want to find out about a place, you ask a local," he says. "People I met abroad were fascinated about Brooklyn, and I started showing them around when they'd come to town. Of course, I took them out for pizza, and it was their favourite part. What started as a hobby became a business."
As recently as five years ago, he claims, the number of Brooklyn tours was virtually nil.
"There's still a stigma about Brooklyn in some people's minds, the same way some people think that Domino's is real pizza," he says, adding that "after taking a spin with me, fuggedaboutit. They change their minds."
The tour usually starts at Grimaldi's, known for its coal-fired oven and New York style pies, near the Brooklyn Bridge. After driving around town, noting famed film and historic locations, the tour usually ends at L&B Spumoni Gardens, a Bensonhurst institution.
I paid a visit to L&B, which had the two telltale signs of a pizzeria worth the trip: the people standing next to me were overwhelmingly locals, and the place wasn't called "Ray's".
L&B lived up to the hype: the Sicilian-style pizza -a thick, rectangular, fluffy crust with a crisp bottom, made with the unusual signature of cheese under sauce -- was fantastic. With a soda and pistachio spumoni for dessert, you've got a complete, carb-overloaded meal. After eating half a pie in one sitting, I understood why Muia says he could eat L&B's pizza every day for the rest of his life.
Art of Queens
On a sunny day, there's nothing quite like exploring the oversized oddities at Socrates Sculpture Park, across the water from Roosevelt Island and Manhattan's Upper East Side. For a more urban experience, there's 5 Pointz, a massive warehouse turned into the world's biggest graffiti canvas.
Unfortunately for me, it was raining, so I opted to visit the MoMA PS1 museum instead. Housed in a former high school, it is one of North America's premier contemporary arts venues, with an ever-changing, always eclectic selection of exhibits, from the immersive, multimedia experience of Ryan Trecartin's Any Ever, to the sensual, voyeuristic photo graphy of Laurel Nakadate's Only the Lonely. Each summer, the museum's courtyard is transformed into a idyllic place where visitors can lounge around in arty comfort. This year's creation, Interboro Partners' Holding Pattern, turned the space into an open-air rec room, complete with Ping-Pong and foosball tables.
Take me out to a ball game
The last stop of my grand tour took me to hallowed ground: Yankee Stadium, home of the Bronx Bombers, the winningest franchise in all of pro sports. My buddy and I were even treated to a free pre-game show: as we passed through Harlem on the B train, a break dancing crew got onto our subway car and rocked some seriously gravity-defying moves between stops.
The sight of the new Yankee Stadium, opened in 2009, was as imposing and impressive as you'd imagine a ballpark that holds 50,000 rabid fans -- every game until eternity is virtually sold out, so it's almost impossible to buy face-value tickets. I bought mine via online reseller Stub Hub, and they didn't come cheap; in fairness, it was a "subway" match against cross-town rivals NY Mets.
I had attended a few Expos games back when they were still slugging it out at the Big O, but nothing prepared me for the wall of impassioned humanity cheering and jeering at each hit and run. When things were looking bleak for the home team, the Yanks came alive, scoring six runs in the span of two innings, winning the game. A fitting ending to the perfect N.Y. outing.
-- Postmedia News
WHAT TO DO
General information can be found online at www.nycgo.com, while each borough has their own tourism site: www.visitbrooklyn. org, www.discoverqueens.info, www.ilovethebronx.com and www.visitstatenisland.com. Discounts or preferred access to many attractions can be had with either a Go New York Card (www.smartdestinations.com) or New York City Pass (www.citypass.com/newyorkcity).
-- FAMOUS FAT DAVE'S
Experience famous and lesser-known food attractions in Famous Fat Dave's Five Boroughs Eating Tour on the Wheels of Steel -- an old-fashioned white checkered cab. Tour guide Fat Dave has appeared on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, so you can bet he knows where to grab the best grub. Duration: two hours and up.
-- A SLICE OF BROOKLYN TOUR
A guided tour by local cognoscenti Tony and Paula, who go off the beaten path and into the Italian heart of Brooklyn. Take in the sights from famous films and real life, with requisite stops for a taste of NYC's best pizza. Duration: 4 1/2 hours.
-- PIZZA ON YOUR OWN
Check out our Brooklyn pizzeria map: binged.it/qngOB7
-- EXCURSIONS (QUEENS)
Get fully immersed in the beautiful diversity of Queens, where half the population is foreign-born, and just about every nationality (and cuisine) isduly represented. Explore the borough with Doris, a Queens resident who knows the local history and culinary delights, for an experience you won't soon forget.
Duration: three hours.
-- REAL BRONX TOURS
Live your own Bronx tale visiting landmarks from the historic brownstones of Mott Haven to New York's real Little Italy on Arthur Avenue, and of course, Yankee Stadium. Duration: about three hours.
Tour on your own Check out our Queens cultural attractions map: binged.it/pNNXty
Check out our Bronx parks and recreation map: binged.it/r0Bz4n
-- BROOKLYN BRIDGE
One of the most famous bridges in the world, and a defining part of the local landscape. To really appreciate Manhattan's skyline, walk over the bridge to the Brooklyn side.
MoMA PS1 museum
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Queens 1-718-784-2084
One of the most significant spaces for contemporary art in the U.S., renowned for its curation of experimental and experiential, often multimedia exhibits.
-- NEW YORK YANKEES
1 East 161st Street, Bronx
No professional sports franchise has ever won more championships than the Yankees -- just don't mention it around fans of the NY Mets and archrivals the Boston Red Sox. The new Yankees stadium is huge, but it's still wise to ensure that whatever tickets you purchase don't have an obstructed view.