Big Cheese

Italian immigrants brought new ingredients to Brooklyn—and the American diet.

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In the 18th century, New York’s discerning diners considered French cuisine le ne plus ultra of gustatory excellence. French cheeses like Camembert and Roquefort in particular signified wealth and good taste. But between 1880 and 1920, huge numbers of southern Italian immigrants arrived on our shores, bringing with them cheeses from another European paradigm.

By the mid-20th century, spaghetti and pizza were mainstays of the American diet and a growing demand for Italian ingredients—a post-war column in the Times told housewives to use ricotta cheese in lieu of cottage—led to their increased production in the United States. By 1956 New York State alone produced more than 24 million pounds of provolone, mozzarella and Parmesan—a massive increase from 1930, when production clocked in at under a million pounds. But as every exacting nona knows, American ingredients are no substitute for delicacies from the mother country. While suburban housewives snapped up neon green cans of Kraft Grated Parmesan, introduced in 1945, even the poorest paesanos saved their pennies for imported pasta, San Marzano tomatoes, anchovies and crumbly hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Decades before Dean & Deluca shoppers would delight in aged pecorino and balsamic, Brooklynites stocked their larders from the specialty food shops that lined the streets in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Carroll Gardens, the north side of Williamsburg, even East New York. Imported provolones—which could weigh up 200 pounds—hung from the rafters and served as these stores’ defining decor. These days, it’s still easy for Brooklynites to sate a craving for old-world formaggio. But we’d like to argue that even that exacting nona would be plenty pleased with the ricotta and mozzarella made right here every day.

A few great Italian-American grocers still going strong:

A & S Italian Pork Store, 361 Avenue X, 718.336.3373; Bay Ridge

Bari Pork Store, 158 Avenue U, 718.372-6405; Gravesend

D’Amico Foods, 309 Court Street, 718. 875.5403; Cobble Hill

D. Coluccio & Sons, Inc., 1214 60th Street (718) 436-6700; Bensonhurst

Emily’s Pork Store, 426 Graham Ave; 718.383.7216; Williamsburg

Faicco’s Pork Store, 6511 11th Ave.,718.236.0119; Dyker Heights

Frank and Sal’s Prime Meats, 8008 18th Ave., 718.331.8100;  ‎Bensonhurst

Paisanos Meat Market, 162 Smith Street, 718. 855.2641; Cobble Hill ‎

Mastellone Italian Deli, 303 Court St.,718.522.6700; Cobble Hill

Update on May 27, 2014: Mastellone Italian Deli is now closed.

The Big Cheese. Anthony Nocella lifts a 110-pound provolone at Brooklyn Terminal Market in 1959. Even the poorest paesanos saved their pennies for tastes of home. Photo credit:  World Telegram & Sun by Roger Higgins.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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