By VADIM LAVRUSIK
When Dave Freedenberg was a cabbie some five years ago, every time he dropped someone off he would ask where the best local food joint was. After several years of driving up and down New York City, he knew a lot of the local food secrets.
Three years ago, he decided to use that knowledge to start his own food touring business, driving people to some of the most delicate tastes the city has to offer.
Today, he’s now better known as Famous Fat Dave. Famous? That’s something he earned from his appearances on the likes of National Public Radio and Anthony Bourdain’s TV show on the Travel Channel. Even though he’s from SoHo, on a recent tour he was recognized by school kids in Harlem.
Freedenberg doesn’t drive a yellow cab around town anymore, but a mint condition cream-colored 1982 Checker A12, the iconic 60s taxi.
“Kids love the Checker,” he said. “It’s like a toy to them.”
After getting his master’s from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs last spring, the 30-year-old plans to focus on his business full time, with aims of landing his own TV show.
He gets smiles all around from people pulling up next to him and asking him about his Checker or just passers-by on the street.
“The Checker really brings people back,” Freedenberg said. “Sometimes I feel like it gets added respect while I am driving.”
He always makes sure to give anyone stopping him his business card and talks about his tours or points to the Web site name stickered on his car door. He’s continuing to look for ways to get more business for his food tours, which mostly comes from word of mouth and his Web site, where he also writes about his food adventures.
The base rate for a tour starts at $200 for two people for two hours, and that includes the food. Each added hour or person costs $100, unless they’re kids, who eat for free. And of course, the tours are all customizable to the eater: vegetarian, meat lover, experienced foodie, New Yorker. Sometimes people will go to fewer places because they simply enjoy seeing the city in a Checker, while others are on the tour to try as much food as possible.
“Sometimes if you’re from Manhattan, you don’t venture much into the other boroughs to try those foods,” Freedenberg said. “This lets you do that.”
So what are those foods? Everything from jerk shrimp to coal oven pizza to broccoli rabe to cannoli to you name it. And often times, he knows the story behind the name of the place too. Like the Murder Burger in the Bronx. “It either got its name because it’s supposed to murder your hunger or someone was murdered there,” he said.
The restaurants are either places he’s come across in his work as a cabby or recommendations he gets from locals.
This is the appeal to many of his tasters, many of whom are out-of-towners looking to get a glimpse of the big city through its food.
Matt Vinnola, who lives in Colorado, toured with Famous Fat Dave during a guys’ weekend to the city with three of his friends last summer. He found the tour after seeing Freedenberg on the Travel Channel. Their tour lasted for about four hours and ranged from Caribbean food to key lime pie, he said.
Vinnola said Freedenberg brings a lot to the table with his knowledge of the city and the stories behind the food. “It’s something that everybody can do,” he said. “I could do this with my wife and kids.”
Jennifer Kepler was visiting the city with her husband and decided to do the tour after hearing about it on NPR.
Kepler said the places they visited weren’t ones that she would have found on her own, but would have to live in the neighborhood to find out about it.
“Most of these aren’t in the tourist book,” she said.
Freedenberg said customer favorites on the tour include Fratelli’s Pizza Cafe in the Bronx, a small place with a big taste, which he said has the best broccoli rabe.
The tasty green dish was an off-the-menu item, but has become a favorite with patrons, said Joe Fratelli, owner of the cafe. Fratelli, 45, uses many family recipes.
“There’s no special secret,” he said. “We don’t premake our stuff and use the best recipes. We don’t cheat. It’s all made right here.” The pizza brings in celebrities like Busta Rhymes, Fratelli said, showing a recent picture of the rapper eating at the cafe.
Despite the exposure from Famous Fat Dave’s tours and visits from celebrities, Fratelli said the cafe is still not that well known.
“Only if you know someone who’s been here, they would bring you here,” he said.