Oldest cheese shop in America continues to serve Little Italy amidst financial hardships

A tour group came to a halt outside of Alleva Dairy in Little Italy on Aug. 14. Spying the small company through the storefront window, owner Karen King opened her doors early that Sunday.

Greeting the sightseers, she welcomed them into the oldest cheese store in the United States. Inside, the crowd snapped photos and enjoyed everything from sandwiches, cheese, and deli meats. 

The historic cheese shop, around for more than 130 years, continues to serve up great delicacies for now — though its long-term survival is up in the air, thanks to financial hardships incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Located at 188 Grand Street since 1892, King takes great joy in sharing the rich history of Alleva Dairy and even greater pleasure in revealing that the historic business is a Little Italy native.

Karen King welcomes tourists. Photo by Dean Moses
Visitors snap photos. Photo by Dean Moses

“I think when people come and I tell them, they’re really surprised. They want to see what the oldest cheese store in America looks like,” King told amNewYork Metro excitedly. 

Originally founded by Italian immigrant Pina Alleva in the late 19th century, the business remains family owned until this very day. Robert Alleva ran the shop until 2014, when his cousin John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia took over the historic location. 

But Ciarcia died in 2015, leaving the reigns to his wife Karen King, who has overseen the artisan store ever since.

For more than half a decade King has helmed the ship through many storms, including COVID-19.

“I’m a female operator on my own dealing with all of Little Italy, and that comes with a lot. My husband was always fighting all these battles and now I am fighting all the battles,” King told amNewYork Metro.

The original owners. Photo by Dean Moses
Karen King serves customers.Photo by Dean Moses

One of those battles turned into a war with the advent of the pandemic. Alleva Dairy switched to pick-up orders only to survive the financial hardships over the worst months of the deadly virus. But despite surviving an economic tidal wave that washed away many interdependent store owners, Alleva Dairy is continuing to fight for its survival. 

“We’re having a major battle with the landlord because of the back rent that’s due, she doesn’t want to take off anything for when there was no business here for a year and a half, and the rent is very expensive,” King explained. “I am hopeful. I had a court date, and I was very disappointed in what happened because she set now a trial day, so I’ll see what happens in the trial.”

The financial hardships are coupled with what King cites as a lack of tourism, which is the lifeblood of the business. Alleva Dairy has started a GoFundMe account in hopes of weathering the storm. 

Photo by Dean Moses
Photo by Dean Moses