The quest for New York’s best cheesecake
When I step off the airport shuttle at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal on East 42nd, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. Vintage cars line the streets and a few women sporting retro updos and frosted pink lipstick stand at the curbside. I round the corner and realize, as I’m blinded by floodlights, that I’ve stumbled onto a movie set. Hundreds of onlookers jostle behind barricades, trying to get a look at the unfolding scene. A security guard ushers me out of the way.
“Excuse me,” I say to him, “can you tell me…”
Without looking away from the surging crowd, he replies, “Men in Black III.”
“No, uh, can you tell me a good spot for cheesecake?”
He turns away from the crowd and stares at me.
It’s Day 1 of my five-day trip to New York City, and I am on a mission: I am here to find the ultimate piece of New York cheesecake. Not Italian or nouveau cheesecake. I am here searching for the true New York cheesecake with an unchanging list of ingredients: cream cheese, eggs, heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla. No chocolate swirls. No strawberries on top. No cookie-dough crusts. And instead of checking the obvious sources—restaurant reviews, city guides, and food blogs—I have decided to ask the locals.
“There’s Junior’s in Grand Central.” He gestures towards the imposing terminal behind me.
Junior’s Cheesecake and Desserts is on the lower level dining concourse, a cavernous expanse that, like the movie scene outside, feels like a throwback from a bygone era. I order my slice of cheesecake, take the boxed delicacy to go, and head to my East Village digs: a friend’s vacated apartment. Once there, I drop my bag and tuck into my first taste.
Deceptively dense and a little dry, the Junior’s slice has a frozen-variety flavour, and whereas many NYC cheesecakes have no distinguishable crust, this one is lined with a thin layer of flavourless sponge cake. Though Junior’s calls itself not just New York’s but “The World’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake”, it seems overrated to me. With five days of cheesecake-testing ahead of me, I am happy this version does not prove irresistible.
The next recommendation comes that night from an inebriated patron at Duke’s on Avenue C. No signs mark the pub’s entrance, unless you count a handwritten slip of paper taped to the window that states: “Please Respect Our Neighbors and Shut the Fxxk Up!” I’m here because a Canucks-Boston game is on the big-screen TV.
The man sitting next to me at the bar is unaware of the game, but he has overheard me talking to the bartender about my quest.
“Katz’s” he manages, slurring the combination of Zs and Ss in the delicatessen’s name. “Best cheesecake ever.”
The next morning, I head to the Lower East Side and find Katz’s Deli, famous for its assembly-line counter service and packed pastrami sandwiches. Instead of taking this piece to go, I sit at one of the many tables—surrounded by signed celebrity photos with scrawled endorsements—and take a bite.Creamy. Smooth. A delicious blend of lemon and vanilla. And no crust.
I moan, but thankfully, the deli is so crowded, no one hears—unlike in the infamous scene shot here from When Harry Met Sally.
On Day 3, I set out for the subway station but am stopped outside of a hole-in-the-wall jewellery store by a stick-thin fashionista who is helping her friend, the store’s owner, promote the shop’s new location. Inside, plaster casts of hands extend from the walls, holding various gold and silver creations.
Before I leave, I ask both women if they can recommend a good spot for cheesecake. They look perplexed, as though I have just asked them where I might find plutonium for a nuclear bomb.
“Um…” they glance at each other, their combined weight less than 200 pounds. “Well, there’s Little Owl in the West Village. I think they serve cheesecake.”
One hour and blocks of walking later, I learn that Little Owl doesn’t serve cheesecake, though they do serve gluten-free pizza.
On Day 4, I set off with no destination in mind. I wander through the Lower East Side, through Chinatown, and then through Little Italy. I finally end up in the West Village at Murray’s cheese shop.
“Do you sell cheesecake?” I ask a Murray’s clerk.
Amidst a selection of 300 cheeses from around the world, he looks up and shakes his head.
“Rocco’s,” he says, gesturing towards the door and across the street.
At Pasticceria Rocco, I order a piece of cheesecake (actually, only half a piece of cheesecake, because the slices are huge).
“Plain?” The woman behind the counter looks at me as though I’ve just ordered vanilla ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s. “And only half?”
I nod and agree to pay full price, $5.50, for a half slice.
Rocco’s cheesecake is the perfect consistency: baked golden and slightly drier on top, creamy through the middle and down to its crustless base. The flavours are a divine blend of cream cheese, vanilla, and a hint of lemon that result in a cheesecake that’s neither too sweet nor too tart. It is delicious. I sit, much too long—gazing lovingly at nothing and nobody in particular—but no one seems to mind.
On my way back to the East Village, I stop at a souvenir store. I ask the owner, a robust man, if he can recommend a good place for cheesecake. Without hesitation, he names Veniero’s in the East Village.
On my final day, I set out in search of Veniero’s and find, much to my surprise, that it is within a few blocks of where I am staying. In business since 1894, Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe makes me feel—for the second time since arriving in New York—that I’ve stepped back in time. Old glass pastry cases line the walls, and antiques clutter the shelves.
I order a slice of New York cheesecake, sit down, and take a bite. Cream-cheesy. Light. Exquisitely smooth. Absolutely delicious.
Though it’s difficult to name one variety of cheesecake the best, I think I have found it—for today, anyway. And I’m glad that after tomorrow, it’ll be 3,900 kilometres away.
ACCESS: The best: Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe; a close second, Pasticceria Rocco. Not far behind is Katz’s Deli. An honorable mention goes to Eileen’s Special Cheesecake. Junior’s Cheesecake and Desserts will do in a pinch.