A few years ago, to save money, I left Manhattan and rented a studio apartment in the 30th Avenue district of Astoria, Queens. Being a foodie at heart, I dreaded moving to a neighborhood that I expected to be a gustatory wilderness. And at first there was a bit of culture shock, but before long I discovered the pleasures of exploring the neighborhood’s multitude of ethnic-food markets, patronized by immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico, Colombia, Greece, Italy, and Croatia. Not only do these shops sell the same imported produce, meats, cheeses, oils, vinegar, spices, grains, legumes, and prepared foods that I used to buy in Manhattan’s specialty gourmet markets, but they also sell them at considerably lower prices. Within weeks, I learned that I could have my prosciutto and afford to eat it, too.
Because the 30th Avenue district is only fifteen minutes from Manhattan via the N train, it’s easy to embark on your own culinary world tour. Begin at the Hidalgo Grocery (30-11 29th Street; 718-274-6936), named after the Mexican state where owner Carlos Sanchez and most of his products come from. Ignore the cramped and disheveled appearance, and check out Hidalgo’s exotic assortment of more than a dozen chilies, from the familiar red and green jalapeños to the small yet powerful arbol verde. You’ll also find a remarkable roster of dried peppers, including cascabel, guajillo, pulla, costeno, pasilla, and the smoky chipotle. His deli case is always stocked with fresh greens, like verdolagas and guansontle, great for sautéing; avocado leaves and fresh chamomile flowers, used for cooking and teas; and two types of sweet cactus (called nopales) that go great in enchiladas with black beans, tomatoes, and melted cheese. On weekends, fresh, spicy chicken and pork tamales are sold. Before you leave, try the spicy longaniza sausage made with guajillo chiles.
Just around the corner is Janata Grocery (29-28 30th Avenue; 718-274-1609). Jammed with school supplies, cooking utensils, and cleaning products, the store looks more like a general store than a food market at first glance. Take a closer look and discover a world of Bangladeshi and Indian products, like giant fresh okra; Indian beets (called muqi); and phoi, curly greens used for sautéing. Note, too, such staples as ghee (clarified butter from India); several types of chapati, or flat bread; and an abundance of grains and flours. But most impressive is Janata’s selection of rice, a mountain of more than 30 types including aged Kalizira, basmati, jasmine, and Indian puffed rice. Owner Mohamed Uddin, from Bangladesh, also carries a wide variety of lentils – including green, red, yellow, and white – that are often hard to find. Uddin sells fresh spices too, including garam masala, coriander, turmeric, ginger, chili powder, fennel seed, and many types of Madras curry powder. Two massive freezers house imported fish, halal meats, and quail and pigeons.
Head east to 34th Street and the Greek emporium Mediterranean Foods (30-12 34th Street; 718-728-6166), where you’ll find more than 25 varieties of cold-pressed, extra-virgin Greek, Italian, and Spanish olive oils. Owner Billy Tentolouris says his house-made pork sausage and his Cypriot-style meatballs are among the best-selling items, and after you’ve tasted them you’ll understand why. The deli case is packed with 50 types of domestic and imported cheeses, including ten kinds of Greek feta. (For a salty-sweet late-summer treat, buy a wedge of hard, white haloumi, made from sheep’s milk, and serve it with watermelon.) Mediterranean stocks twenty kinds of olives, including the large, green Naflion; the darker kalamata; Italian Gaeta; and the Spanish Alfonso. Don’t leave without sampling volvi, the mild pickled onions that are a specialty of Sparta.
At the corner of 36th Street is the smaller, family-run Artunian’s International Foods (35-27 30th Avenue; 718-726-8298), the place to go for freshly prepared Mediterranean specialties such as dolma, or stuffed grape leaves; taramasalata, a creamy carp-roe dip; tsatsiki, a mixture of yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic; hummus; tabbouleh, and zacusca, a Romanian dip made with eggplant and onions, olive oil, and tomatoes. Other highlights include owner George Artunian’s pickles, mixed Naflion olives with garlic and coriander, garlic-stuffed olives, Romanian cheese pie, spanakopita, and baklava.
No visit to the neighborhood would be complete without a stop at Dave & Tony Salumeria (35-18 30th Avenue; 718-728-4850). This colorful shop offers many of the same products you would find in Little Italy, Bay Ridge, or Arthur Avenue, only at lower prices. Owners Frank Chimienti of Bari, Italy, and Joe Ciccarelli of Alife, near Naples, have operated the market since 1986. The small space is home to 30 imported Italian cheeses, including bufala mozzarella, fontina, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Locatelli, mascarpone, and a 110-pound log of Auricchio provolone. Frank and Joe’s homemade mozzarella and spicy, all-pork sausages are among the best in the city. They also sell homemade fresh pastas as well as dried brands like Divella and Barilla; three kinds of rice for risotto (Arborio, carnaroli, and vialone nano); and over 60 kinds of imported cookies, including Mulino Bianco and Paluani. The deli counter is truly magnificent, featuring logs of bresaola, soppresatta, capiccola, Calabrese soppresatta, domestic prosciutto, and finally, after years of its being banned in the U.S., mortadella, the original bologna.
On your way home, if you still have energy and appetite, grab some lunch at Piccola Venezia (42-01 28th Avenue; 718-721-8470), a Venetian-style trattoria with a 15,000-bottle wine cellar. After you’ve tried the grilled tuna steak served in an onion-and-balsamic-vinegar ragoût with sautéed kale, or the homemade bow-tie pasta with wild mushrooms cooked in grappa, you’ll be ready to move to Astoria yourself.