Of all the forms of shopping available in New York, food shopping may be the most rewarding of all. Here is a tour of a baker's half-dozen of the outstanding food stores in Manhattan. You may shop at some of them by mail or telephone.

NEW YORK is a collecting point. Every year more than 5,000 freighters unload 60 million tons of cargo on the city's docks. Every day countless trucks and trains deliver meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables from around the country.

The city's food reflects all this. Its 12,000 restaurants include over 150 different ethnic types.

Most of the stores that sell food in New York are similar to stores that sell food in other cities, but some are unlike any others anywhere. ZABAR'S

Zabar's, a West Side deli and food emporium that stocks more than 7,000 food and hardware items, is probably the best-known store of them all. Owners Saul and Stanley Zabar and Murray Klein say they sell the best food at the best prices, and many people agree.

It is packed daily (and until midnight on Saturday nights) with food fanatics (20,000 a week).

Klein insists that the store has not changed since it was enlarged last year. "Sure there's more space now, but we'll make sure to get enough customers in to fill it up; nothing will change, there'll just be a little more room to shop," he says.

Klein stresses the point, because he knows Zabar's customers like tumult.

Joy watman, who helps manage the store, says, "Our customers don't have any use for those pretty little East Side stores. They don't want gingham ribbons or gift wrapping."

Zabar's countermen are notoriously effective salesmen. They urge customers to taste everything, which makes it easy to walk in to buy a loaf of bread and some Genoa salami and end up an hour later with a dozen croissants, five kinds of double creme cheeses, some fresh tomato linguini, a Westphalian ham, a terrine of artichokes and mushrooms, a quart or Moroccan hot pepper and garlic olives . . . and no money left.

But who cares? It's worth it to shop at a store that carries more than 300 kinds of cheese, 100 varieties of sausage and salami (from dry wine and garlic salami to smoked goose wurst), 41 kinds of mustard, and 40 types of fresh bread, from brioches to Irish soda bread.

The store also sells 16 blends of coffee, all imported and roasted by Saul Zabar, and is the only importer in the eastern United States of the most elite coffee of them all, Jamaica Blue Mountain ($5.98 a pound).

The prepared food deserves note too. Chef Boris Bassin works with seven or eight assistants every day to prepare nearly 100 house specials, ranging from French smoked duck ($2.99 a pound) to barbecued spare ribs (both Chinese and Texan, $2.99), from rack of baby veal (5.99) to broccoli pate ($7.99). When the addition is complete, Bassin and the kitchen, now hidden, will move out into the main store, in view of customers.

And there is much more: Scottish and Novia Scotia smoked salmon and matjes herring in the seafood department, $1,000 cappuccino makers and $20 heavy copper pans in the kitchen-ware section. Currently Zabar's will ship only coffee and hardware, no perishable items, but Klein hopes to be able to ship everything within a year. Write for a catalogue.

Zabar's: 2245 Broadway (between 80th and 81st), New York 10024. (212) 787-2000. Open every day. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. DEAN AND DELUCA'S

The first thing you notice when you walk through the big oak and glass doors at Dean and DeLuca's, SoHo's gourmet food store, is a colorful fruit and vegetable display -- burlap bags the size of steamer trunks and waist-high wicker baskets spilling over with yams, carrots, apples, corn, small potatoes, cabbages, and cauliflowers.

The second thing you notice is that everything else is white and chic and cool. The emphasis at Dean and DeLuca's is on good taste -- both in decor and food.

The owners are mildly obsessed with quality. "We don't buy anything we don't taste first. If we don't like it, we don't stock it," says Giorgio DeLuca. DeLuca and consultant chef Felipe Rojas Lombardi handle food; Joel Dean takes care of the books and the store's extensive cookware department.

Like Zabar's, Dean and DeLuca's stocks an excellent selection of cheeses, meats, olives and olive oils, vinegars, breads, tea and coffee, and so on. The store carries six varieties of salmon, ranging in price from mild cured lox at $12 a pound, to Danish at pause-provoking $29 a pound.

At the meat counter, great ropes of sausage lie casually coiled on top of a display case holding the creations of Chef Lombardi. The items change from day to day; on a recent trip the case held smoked filet mignon ($11 a pound), a wild turkey with chocolate ballantine ($20), a suckling pig gallantine, goose in chaud-froid sauce, and several pheasant and duck dishes.Generally available uncooked, are pheasant ($13 a pound), quail ($3.50), and partridge ($7), as well as many smoked meats, sausages, pates and terrines.

Lombardi makes other entrees, including lion stew and chicken with 42 cloves of garlic, as well as salads (fresh fennel in vinaigrette sauce for $2.75 a pound) and soups.

The kitchenware section, crowding the small aisles in the rear of the store, holds a variety of useful and extravagant things.

Dean and DeLuca's imports some items found nowhere else, including Belgian Callebaut chocolate ($5 a pound, in bittersweet, milk, and white). DeLuca believes it to be the best chocolate in the world.

All of this would seem enough to keep one man content, but DeLuca is thinking of expanding, though this store is only three years old and a summertime branch has been opened in East Hampton.

Dean and DeLuca's: 121 Prince St., between Greene and Wooster, SoHo; 254-7774. Open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. PASTA AND CHEESE

A lot of stores in New York sell fresh pasta and pasta dishes, and many of them, including Zabar's and Macy's, get their supplies from Pasta and Cheese Inc.

There are five Pasta and Cheese stores in Manhattan, all located on the East Side, and all much the same in appearance -- small and clean with a well-laid-out meat and cheese counter dominating the scene.

The chain's central kitchen supplies the stores daily with fresh egg and whole wheat psta and weekly with tomato and spinach. Pasta comes in five styles, from the thinnest, capelli d'angelo, to the large lasagna and cannelloni squares. All pasta sells for $1.90 a pound.

Also available are half-a-dozen fresh sauces. A simple meat and tomato sauce costs $4 for 14-ounces. Forestiera sauce, with a tomato and fresh cream base, and mushrooms, zucchini, and proscuitto, costs $3.75.

Pesto sauce ($4.25 for 7 ounces), is a best seller.

The stores sell excellent goat cheeses and several Italian cheeses shipped from Milan not found elsewhere in New York, including a buffalo milk mozzarella (between $6 and $9 a pound), mascarpone, a wonderfully rich cream cheese ($14 a pound), and zola creme, made of layers of Gorgonzola and mascarpone ($16).

Pasta and Cheese: 65th and Madison, 570-0884; 72nd and Madison, 249-2466; 87th and Madison, 369-2980; 78th and Third Ave., 988-0997; 69th and Second Ave., 628-1313. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. CAVIARTERIA

Caviarteria bills itself as "the caviar center of the U.S.A." The tiny, crowded, dusty store doesn't look like the center of anything at all. It looks like a mess, and it is a mess, but it sells more, and better, and cheaper caviar to retail customers than any other store in the country.

Louis Sobol, who has owned and managed Caviarteria for 25 years, imports his own caviar, mostly fresh. He sells very little vacuum packed caviar, and none of the usual supermarket brands.

At Caviarteria fresh beluga malassol sells for $199 for 14 ounces (2 1/2 ounces for $40). Most other stores sell it for between $295 and $350.

Caviarteria also sells Imperial Golden caviar, which Sobol calls "the finest on the face of the earth." It is hard to find in this country. Sobol sells 14 ounces of Imperial Golden for $395, 2 1/2 ounces for $79.

"The only other place I've seen it sold was Neiman-Marcus, years ago and they were selling it for $1,000 for 14 ounces," says Sobol.

Caviarteria does a hughe mail-order business, and will ship caviar and sides of Scottish salmon anywhere in the country. Catalogues are available.

Caviarteria: 870 Madison Ave. (between 70 and 71st), New York 10021. 861-1210. Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 10 to 5. LOBEL'S

When Stanley Lobel says, "You name it, I'll get it," he is only exaggerating a little. Stanley and Leon Lobel, brothers and owners of M. Lobel and Sons, New York's most prestigious butcher shop, will try to meet any request, no matter how odd.

The brothers have procured rattlesnake steaks for one customer and wild pheasant burgers for another. They regularly fill an order of a pound of ground round for a turtle, and Stanley once flew to Texas to pit-roast a steer for a favorite customer.

Lobel's sells venison, pheasants, squab, rabbits, and ducklings, along with corn-fed chicken, prime beef, lamb, pork, veal, and smoked and cured meats.

Their shop, which features a windowed street-front cooler filled with hanging sides of beef and dozens of shell strips, attracts customers for whom price is not an immediate concern, which is good, because prices are steep. Sirloin goes for $6.89 a pound, shell steak for $8.49. Venison costs $8.89. Pheasant, at only $6.89, might be considered almost cheap.

Lobel and Sons Inc.: 1096 Madison Ave., 737-1372. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. GREENBERG'S BAKERY

Late on a Wednesday evening, when only a few customers are left in William Greenberg's Third Avenue bakery, he heads, smiling, out to the kitchen in search of the perfect Danish.

He explains to his son, Seth, that the dough must be folded. . . thus, and then. . .thus, and, finally,. . . thus, if one really wants to make the best Danish in New York.

Greenberg -- Mr. G to most people, including his wife -- has spent 30 years looking for the perfect Danish, the perfect strudel, the perfect cake. A lot of people think he already has found them, but he is not so easily satisfied.

Greenberg owns three bakeries in Manhattan, and he and his wife and son work every day at one of them. Most often he can be found at the Third Avenue branch.

Eating a Greenberg's cake is as close to pure pleasure as you can get. Even people who say they don't like desserts will knock back three or four hefty slices if you don't watch them carefully.

They only thing better then Greenberg's chocolate and whipped cream cake is Greenberg's coconut and whipped cream cake, or maybe Greenberg's straight chocolate cake.

A small cake costs between $8 and $11 and must be considered a bargain.

Then there are the special-occasion cakes. Greenberg's makes commemorative cakes in just about any design you can think of. He once made a chocolate typewriter for a literary agent. Right now, though, he is not taking any orders for special cakes, because he is already five weeks backlogged with orders.

Greenberg's also sells cookies, brownies, various strudels and Danishes, and a kind of Sunday morning cake called a buttercake square that has proven so popular a fourth bakery was opened recenty to sell only buttercake squares.

William Greenberg Jr. Desserts Inc.: 1377 Third Ave., 876-2255, 1100 Madison Ave., (buttercake squares only), 744-0304; 17 East 8th St., 674-6657; 817 Madison Ave., 535-7118. Open Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Sunday.

The stores mentioned in this article are only a sampling of Manhattan's better food stores. Also recommended, either as geographically convenient replacements, or on their own merits, are:

Trois Petite Cochon, at 17 East 13th St. between 5th Avenue and University Place in East Greenwich Village, (255-3844), makes and sells the best pates anywhere. Four of them, pate de campagne ($6.50 a pound), pate de foie de canard au porto ($7), pate au poivre vert ($7.50), and pate de canard a l'orange ($8), are available in Washington, but it's worth it to travel to the source to sample the dozen others available, as well as the rillettes a l'oie (goose and pork meat cooked in their own fat), the blood sausage, the three types of quiche, the 12 salads, the 13 entrees, and the assorted tarts and chocolate mousse. Everything is made in the tiny kitchen upstairs.

E.A.T., 1064 Madison Ave., (at 80th Street), (879-4017), is owned by Eli Zabar, brother to Saul and Stanley, and offers a diverse selection of cheeses, specialty dishes, coffee, meats, ets., all at pretty staggering prices.

The Silver Palate, 274 Columbus Ave. (between 72nd and 73rd) (799-6340).

This West Side gourmet food store is only 2 years old and tiny, but has a fine reputation and stocks a wide selection of vinegars (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, wild thyme, oregano), and preserves, as well as special entrees, bread, cheeses, and more. The vinegars and cheeses are available at Saks Fifth Avenue in Washington and some other products are at Pasta, Inc.

Word of Mouth, 147 E. 72nd St. (72nd and Third Avenue) (734-9483). Similar to The Silver Palate, but even more imaginative. A wide and always changing selection of entrees, pastries, desserts. Excellent quality.

Alleva Dairy, 188 Grand St. (266-7990), in Little Italy, makes its own ricotta and mozzarella in a miniature factory behind the store. The quality is excellent.

Fay and Allen's Food Works, 1241 Third Ave. (between 71st and 72nd) (794-1101), is the largest gourmet food store in the city. It has many of the same wares as Dean and DeLuca's and Zabar's, but not as much fun.

Shina Trading Co. (Foods of India), 120 Lexington Ave. at 28th Street (683-4419), is the largest importer and retailer of Indian foods and spices in the city. A pound of cury costs $1.99, and among other products, 24 kinds of lentils are in stock.

Katagiri & Co., 224 E. 59th St. between Second and Third (755-3566) sells almost any Japanese or Chinese food you can think of. They also take mail orders.

Bonte Patisserie, 1316 Third Ave. (535-2360). A great French patisserie. Everything, from mille feuilles to strawberry tartes, is first rate. LeSucculent is their best cake, almost as good as a Greenberg's.

Dumas Patisserie, 1330 A Lexington Ave. (between 88th and 89th Streets) (369-3900), and 116 E. 60th St. (between Lexington and Park) (688-0905). Another great patisserie with what may be the best croissants in town.