Places that Matter
Place Matters Profile
For over 100 years, the oldest cheese market in Little Italy (and, according to many, the oldest in the U.S.) continues to serve its community by making the finest quality ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. The original store was established in 1892 by, Pina Alleva, shortly after she emigrated here from Benevento, Italy. Her husband, Henry Alleva, and his sister, known to all as Aunt Erma, continued the tradition. Today, the tradition is carried on by their son, Robert Alleva, Sr., and his son Robert making it a fourth-generation family business.
As you enter the shop, you take a step back in time, as the store retains an Old World aura. The walls are covered with its original tiles and tin ceiling. There are painted glass signs advertising "Burro e Uova" and "Latticini di Nostra Produzione," and one points out that ricotta and mozzarella are "Sono Fatte con Puro Latte" (translation, made with pure milk). As you catch the aroma of imported cheeses, salamis, and sausages hanging about, your eyes soak in the display of imported olive oils and Italian products. Suddenly, you can feel the flavor of Italy. Along with some of the cheeses, Alleva also makes other items like their pizza rustica, which is traditional for Easter.
Many of the city’s pizza parlors purchase their ricotta and mozzarella cheeses from Alleva. The mozzarella is made on site. They also render the raw cheese and curd, and retain a higher content of butterfat which makes it flavorful (though higher in calories!). The ricotta is actually made in their site in Schenectady, as more space is needed for the vats and other production equipment. The upstate site is also closer to the dairy farms and sources of other raw products used in their cheeses.
From May through September the store is busy with tourists; and then throughout the holiday season beginning with the San Gennaro Festival in the fall through Christmas Alleva is busy with locals coming in for holiday shopping. They also ship products for those who have moved from the area and can’t come in person. Walking tours frequently stop at the store, and it is often a site for scavenger hunts. The cheese shop is part of a block that has a number of famous food stores that keep people coming back—DiPalo’s, Ferrara’s, Piemonte.
The site itself was actually one door over when the store first opened in 1892. In 1920 it moved to the current site when the bar which was formerly there closed during Prohibition. Six years ago Alleva expanded the store (in the back) so now it has twice as much public space. In the original front half the owners have kept the original tin ceiling, and, in the back half, they installed a ceiling that seems to replicate the original.