Today was the last time that you could have grabbed the fresh ricotta and mozzarella that has made Alleva Dairy a staple in New York City’s Little Italy since the late 1800s. Regarded as the oldest cheese store in the United States, the 130-year-old shop has been forced to close its doors after falling two years behind on rent.
Karen King, the store’s owner since 2014, tried her best to keep the business afloat while dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to cutting her staff’s pay, she expanded Alleva’s offerings to include other Italian favorites like arancini while also selling pre-made meals and grocery items. However, it ultimately wasn’t enough to cover their level of debt which exceeds $628,000.
Alleva Dairy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last September and had been attempting to work with Jerome G. Stabile III Realty, the owner of the property, to remain at the corner of Mulberry and Grand Street in the heart of Little Italy. King’s prayers were not answered though, as the two parties agreed to a deal that would include Alleva’s relocation. In exchange for dropping its efforts to collect the large sum of back rent, Alleva Dairy would be required to pay $31,000 in addition to moving out of their current location by March 5th, 2023.
This truly marks the end of an era, as the shop has been beloved by Italians and New Yorkers alike for over a century. When Alleva first opened, it mainly serviced Italian immigrants who worked hard labor jobs like digging subway tunnels. Yet, as Italian food became more popular in the US over time, tourists began to flock to places like Little Italy to get an authentic taste of what many agree is the best type of cuisine in the world. Also frequented by celebrities like Leah Remini, Michael Imperioli, Alice Cooper, and Joey Reynolds, Alleva even had a celebrity co-owner in Tony Danza until 2017.
This isn’t the first Little Italy institution to feel the effects of COVID-19. Forlini’s was forced to close in 2022 after spending 79 years on Baxter Street, while many other local businesses also struggled to make ends meet.
A similar impact was felt in nearby Chinatown, but the neighboring ethnic enclave was awarded a $20 million economic and tourism grant by Governor Kathy Hochul to help mitigate these financial hardships. Meanwhile, Little Italy vendors were not even asked to jointly apply for the state grant.
This was echoed by owner Karen King, who stated that “Chinatown got money. A museum across the street from me got a million dollars. My question is, when are businesses like mine going to get their fair share?” She also reached out to the government herself, writing letters to state officials for aid, but she was met with “lip service.”
Alleva Dairy gets its name from Pina Alleva, an immigrant from Benevento, Italy who founded the shop in 1892. The Alleva family would operate the store for the next 122 years before selling the business in 2014 to King and her husband John Ciarcia, more affectionately known as “Cha Cha” and dubbed the “unofficial mayor of Little Italy” before his death in 2015. Ciarcia was a cousin of the last family owner Robert Alleva and also dabbled in acting, appearing in “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas.” Alleva continued to be a family business despite the switch in ownership, as Karen’s sister Denise, nephew Sean, and niece Nikki all currently work at the shop. Other family members also lend a helping hand during the annual San Gennaro Festival each September.
While time has run out to stop by Alleva at its iconic location at the corner of Mulberry and Grand, King does intend to reopen in a different spot. Until then, Alleva patrons will have to find another place to get high-quality Italian cheeses.