Special thanks to James and Karla Murray for the gorgeous shot of Alleva Dairy below. See more of their work currently on view at Clic Gallery or in their book Store Front – The Disappearing Face of New York.
There are two shrines on Mulberry Street. One is the church called Most Precious Blood, in honor of Saint Janarius, the patron saint of Naples whose blood (in a vial) miraculously liquefies every September 19th. The other is Alleva, at the corner of Mulberry and Grand, the oldest Italian cheese shop in the country.
This winter, after finishing up a long day of jury duty, I’d often walk up Mulberry Street, the main passage through a neighborhood which is just about to disappear. Though this tiny Christmas light-hung part of lower Manhattan is not the only historically Italian neighborhood in New York, it is our most famous one, known mostly for the annual street feast that locals call simply San Gennaro.
Walking north from Canal Street, I passed by La Bella Ferrara, which used to make the most perfect cannoli, but with new proprietors now produces overpriced and terrible pastries. La Luna, a once-reliable red sauce joint that had a real Italian nonna in the kitchen, dressed in her housecoat and slippers, now sells hats, scarves, and tacky t-shirts that say “FBI (Full Blooded Italian).”
Even the Neapolitan men (usually living with some relative in Bensonhurst) who worked hard to charm tourists into their restaurants have been mostly replaced with Russians and Indians dishing out the same spiel of such a pretty lady, eat here, it is the best, the most authentic, I would not lie to you bella donna, you will love our food.
At 5:00 pm, Alleva was empty except for an elderly Italian woman staring at one of the remaining loaves of bread hardening in the shop’s window. The only sound was the hum of the refrigerators until one of the men counting money behind the counter called out to the woman in Italian, the soft “s” from the Neapolitan dialect signifying familiarity. She must be one of only a handful of Italians still living in the neighborhood.
My nose filled with the intense briny, salty, porky smell that perfumes the salumerias of Italy, usually spilling out onto the cobbled side streets. Alleva’s white tiled walls and tin ceilings sparkled hygienically against the equally white shine of freshly made mozzarella balls, available salted and unsalted. I purchased a plastic tub of creamy ricotta, the decadent by-product of this old-world mozzarella making institution.
On the opposite corner of Mulberry and Grand, Italian Food Center had just recently shuttered. Next door, Piemonte Ravioli is still in business, one more beautiful relic that makes one thing only and one thing very well. Further east on Grand St., DiPalo’s survives and thrives after having (smartly) reinvented itself as a new kind of Italian shop, one that sells fancy olive oils, truffle-laden cheese, and other delicacies to those who have spent more time in Florence than in Foggia.
The end of the day at Alleva filled me with that feeling called saudade, a Portuguese word used to describe a deep state of longing for something once fond and now lost. But it’s also important to put nostalgia aside and acknowledge that this area was essentially a slum, a first stop for the very poor who were getting a leg up in a new world and who moved on as soon as they could to places with more space, better schools, and yards to grow their own tomato plants. I suppose I shouldn’t be sad about all the sock vendors and cheap cannoli because Mulberry Street was the first phase of a million success stories.
Alleva, which was already in business for 34 years when San Gennaro first got started, is sustained from afar. The man behind the counter who confirmed this for me was also reluctant to chat, probably assuming I was one of the “yuppies” from the expensive border neighborhood of Nolita who have lobbied to reduce the size and length of San Gennaro. But, he assured me, the weekends are hopping when people in the suburbs come back to do their shopping. This is also how Arthur Avenue, the Bronx’s Little Italy, continues to flourish.
Ironically, the great hope for the continued survival of Little Italy might be good parking. The fight between the Nolita merchants and the San Gennaro organizers will likely continue, though Mayor Bloomberg has decided that this year’s feast will proceed as usual. But those that care about preserving Italian cultural heritage would be smart to buy as much fresh mozzarella on the corner of Mulberry and Grand as possible, and continue to keep Alleva alive.
Alleva, 188 Grand St. at Mulberry St., New York, NY. 1-800-4-ALLEVA.