Editor's note: We hear again from Serious Eats community member BaHa, aka Barbara Hanson, who checks with us in now and again about the various little one-of-a-kind food stores and markets in New York. Here is her recipe for stuffed shells with spinach from Alleva Dairy in Little Italy.
"Alleva's mozzarella is all that mozzarella should be: soft but toothsoome, oozing warm milk from its center."
My first trip to Little Italy was the scene of my first, and only, crime. On a dare, from the pair of ten-year-old hardened criminals who were my Brooklyn Catholic school classmates, I stole a zucchini from a vegetable stand. After the deed was done, I quickly made my way through the roiling San Gennaro Saturday night crowd, and disposed of the evidence in the nearest garbage can. Nonetheless, that act of criminality haunted my dreams for weeks, even after going to confession. However, it wasn't hell that I was afraid of: I stayed away from Little Italy until I was in my teens, until my fear of arrest finally faded.
Today, I love Little Italy. Yes, it's touristy and fake and its souvenir stores sell the dumbest t-shirts this side of the Jersey Shore. And most of its current residents are likely to come from places that Marco Polo explored, not where he started out. And, yes, the Feast of San Gennaro has lost much of its original charm.
Why, then, do I find myself returning to the Feast year after year, trying to track down the mother-and-daughter team who make ethereal zeppole? Why bother going to Little Italy at all, when we're surrounded by the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's?
Because the Little Italy that remains--the part that's been making and selling pretty much the same foods for one hundred years or better--is worth seeking out. In the space of one block, you can find Ferrara Bakery and Cafe (est. 1892), DiPalo Dairy (est. 1925), Piemonte Ravioli (est. 1920), and Alleva Dairy (est. 1892), the oldest Italian cheese store in the United States.
Alleva is particularly renowned for its ricotta, which is light as air, creamy, and slightly sweet, with an aftertaste that is punchy with dairy. Alleva's mozzarella is all that mozzarella should be: soft but toothsoome, oozing warm milk from its center. The store itself looks much as it must have done when Pina Alleva, the store's founder, created the cheese recipes that are still in use today.
Alleva's ricotta is also available at the delightful Saxelby Cheese in Essex Street Market, but I strongly recommend taking a stroll to Alleva's, where you can chat with Robert Alleva Sr. and Jr. about cheese, the neighborhood, Alleva Sr.'s golf partner who just won the lottery, the state of New York sports, or just about anything else. It's that kind of place, and the kind of people, who will continue to maintain Little Italy's heart and soul.
I've chosen to showcase Alleva's ricotta and mozzarella in stuffed shells with spinach. They can be served alongside meatballs or sausage, but I chose to accompany them with zucchini, which, I assure you, I paid for!
188 Grand Street, New York NY 10013 (map)