On Friday, September 13, while the rest of Little Italy poured into the streets for the Feast of San Gennaro, Di Palo’s Fine Foods — one of the oldest surviving shops in the neighborhood — opened its new wine bar without fanfare. C. Di Palo, the first time that the 109-year-old family business is serving its cheese in a restaurant setting, is connected to the shop, and by the following Wednesday evening, word was already out among loyal fans. Siblings Sam and Caitlin Di Palo and their cousin Jessica Di Palo Canal flitted around the room pouring wine, slicing mortadella, and greeting many customers by name.
“Not only are we a fifth-generation business, but we also have five generations of customers,” Caitlin says. “We have customers that came with their parents and their parents came with their grandparents.”
Devotees can of course find cheese at the wine bar, located at 151-153 Mott Street, between Grand and Broome streets. Di Palo’s started off as a latteria, and the stars of the show here are still the cow’s milk mozzarella, burrata, and ricotta. While Di Palo’s cheeses appear on New York menus from Italian restaurant Patsy’s in Midtown to multiple Jean-Georges Vongerichten establishments, tasting them steps and hours from where they were made at the shop still holds appeal for many fans.
“My uncle [Sal Di Palo] comes in around 5 a.m. to get the mozzarella going and he may not leave until 11 at night,” Caitlin says. “Sometimes you can get it while it’s still warm.”
A rotating sampling of the shop’s more than 300 other cheeses are on offer too, a way to give customers the chance to sample more of the family’s vast selection. “A lot of people are coming from all over the world who want to experience what we have, but can’t take a suitcase full of cheese home,” Caitlin says. Panini such as the Dolcezza, with gorgonzola dolce, apple, and honey, are also on deck, as are a rotating assortment of meats including hot soppressata, prosciutto, and bresaola.
While the wine bar is new, the Carrara marble countertops, pewter bar, and reclaimed redwood walls feel in keeping with the business’s historic character. The latter was salvaged when Ferrara Bakery & Cafe, a nearby Little Italy institution dating back to 1892, had to replace their century-old water tower. Rather than let them throw out the wood, the Di Palo’s used it to imbue their 48-seat interior with a warm, weathered look. Sam, who has an affinity for design, selected much of the decor, including the striking light fixtures by Donato Savoie.
The wine bar is also a way for the Di Palo family to share their extensive knowledge about Italian culinary products. Lines during peak hours at Di Palo’s are infamously long, in part because the staff take the time to chat with each customer and explain obscure ingredients. In the future, they plan to use the new space to host seminars on wines and cheeses.
“Each generation has added something to the business,” Caitlin says. Her grandfather expanded the imported offerings in an age when few New Yorkers were willing to shell out for high-end olive oil, and Caitlin and Sam’s generation added Enoteca Di Palo, the wine shop next door, roughly a decade ago.
C. Di Palo is a growth out of decades of developing a customer base for the cheese shop. Ruth Reichl is a devotee, as is Francis Ford Coppola. Martin Scorsese has such an appreciation for the shop that he wrote the forward to a book on Italian cuisine by Lou Di Palo, who currently runs the business with his siblings Sal and Marie. The name, though, harkens to a longer legacy.
Making mozzarella has been a family tradition since Savino Di Palo, a cheesemaker and dairy farmer from Basilicata, Italy, set up the business on Mott Street in 1910. In 1925, after his daughter Concetta Di Palo married, she opened C. Di Palo down the street to support the growing family. A strong-willed matriarch and a savvy businesswoman, she built the shop’s reputation and kept it running while her sons served in World War II.
Today, the original location of C. Di Palo on Grand Street is a branch of Yaya Tea. In the process of routine maintenance work, the owners there uncovered the original hand-painted C. Di Palo sign from the 1940s and returned it to the family. When they got it and the space became available, they knew they had to open the wine bar, Caitlin says.
“For us, it’s about sticking with the family. We see how hard the generation before us worked and we’re doing our best to keep it going,” Caitlin says. “We want to bring the best of Italian food culture to America, which is what we’ve been doing for over a hundred years.”
C. Di Palo is now open Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. until 11 p.m.
Diana Hubbell is a New York-based food and culture journalist.
This post has been updated to correct that the cheese is at a different Patsy’s.