130-Yr-Old Cheese Store in Little Italy Is Saved by a Last Minute Deal But Has to Move to NJ

| 03 Mar 2023 | 11:03

They are calling it a “miracle on Mulberry Street.”

On March 1, Alleva Dairy, the oldest cheese shop in America, closed its doors in Little Italy, where it peddled homemade Italian delicacies since 1892.

However, on that same morning, as its iconic signage was being taken down from its storefront on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets, owner Karen King stood in front of the shop and announced that she is relocating the business to Lyndhurst, N.J. in August.

“Today marks a new chapter in the history of my beloved cheese store,” said King, at the impromptu press conference on the last day the store was open in Little Italy. “Thanks to the vision, generosity and commitment of businessman and developer, Jack Morris, President and CEO, of Edgewood Properties, Alleva Dairy will be opening a 3700-square-foot store at 9 Polito Avenue in Lyndhurst, NJ.

When King and her husband, actor John ‘Cha Cha’ Ciarcia, who was lovingly referred to as the “Unofficial Mayor of Little Italy,” bought Alleva in 2014, the couple knew they were “saving a piece of history.”

“We were so thrilled. We put benches out there to just look at this corner and were in awe of it,” King, a native of Whitestone, Queens, told Straus News a week ago.

Ciarcia’s lineage traces back to Benevento, Italy, where the Allevas hail from, and the two families considered themselves cousins.

“Somehow my husband’s cousins were maybe related to the Alleva family,” she said. “Even if maybe they were cousins, they weren’t, they always say they’re cousins when you’re friends. It’s like that Italian thing.”

The husband-and-wife duo purchased the business from Robert Alleva, whose family’s fifth generation was not interested in inheriting it.

Sadly, Ciarcia passed away a year later, leaving King to keep their beloved store going, which she did, until her landlord was able to take away its 10-year lease after she fell behind in rent payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once news of the impending closure got out, she was flooded with visits from customers, who shared their fond memories with her.

“I’ve had people come in from all over the country. They have stories that their grandmother was here; they came here with their father,” she said.

Celebrity fans include Chazz Palminteri, Vincent Pastore, Michael Imperioli, Vin Diesel, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who came there as a child with his father, and Sebastian Maniscalco, who loves Alleva’s sausage and peppers sandwiches.

Their sausage and peppers are a hit during the Feast of San Gennaro, which has been celebrated in Little Italy since 1926. A year after Ciarcia’s death, the feast instituted an event in his honor, a meatball eating contest, where 12 competitors assemble, each with 30 meatballs on a platter in front of them. Every year, Alleva makes 500 meatballs in preparation, and thousands of people gather to watch.

King, a professional singer, met Ciarcia, a Little Italy native, through a mutual friend in 1995, and quickly fell in love with him and his tight-knit neighborhood.

“I got to know what my husband loved about this community and the relationship that he had with everybody,” she said. “He grew up with all these people, all the owners, that have been here for many, many years. Of course, a lot of people moved away, but the people that did stay, were here for the lifetime.”

She proposed to Ciarcia at his café Cha Cha’s, which he operated at 113 Mulberry Street for 37 years, ordering all the eatery’s mozzarella and ricotta homemade from Alleva.

The pair tied the knot the following year, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with 550 guests in attendance, with Danny DeVito serving as their best man.

Ciarcia, who is known for his roles in “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas,” had other New York Italians from the industry as groomsmen, such as Tony Danza and Danny Aiello.

“He said, ‘Do you want my friends that I grew up with or you want all our actor friends?’” she recalled. “And me being a professional singer and artist, said, ‘Put all your actor friends in it. It would be fun.’”

Danza, Ciarcia’s best friend, was once a silent partner in Alleva. “He’s doing two television shows, “Sex and the City” ... he doesn’t really have time for this, but I would have welcomed him back,” King said.

During the pandemic, with no tourists coming in, King had to pivot her business model, and began selling groceries like bread, butter and eggs, so locals had a place to buy food staples.

Since the restaurants in the area were closed, she called upon her chef, Danny Paulucci, who prepared takeout containers full of dishes like homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, which became a bestseller, broccoli rabe with bowtie pasta and chicken marsala.

“He came in three times a week and he made all the food and we sold it to all the local people. That’s how we were able to stay in business for the past three years,” she said.

There were 18 Italian heroes on Alleva’s menu, with the most popular being “The Godfather,” whose ingredients included chicken cutlets, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and roasted peppers.

“Our chicken cutlets are freshly made and with the prosciutto, the blend of the tastes is dynamite,” she said. “It’s a taste in your mouth that is to die for.”

Said King. “One thing is certain, Alleva Dairy will continue and will be bigger and better than before.”

“One thing is certain, Alleva Dairy will continue and will be bigger and better than before.” Karen King, owner of Alleva Dairy as the iconic Little Italy shop relocates to NJ.