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For the love of formaggi: an old school Italian cheese shop in B+W

Cheese Store, 276 Bleecker St by Berenice Abbott
10"x8" ($24) | 14"x11" ($60) | 20"x16" ($240)

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Benvenuto cheese fiends and vintage photography lovers alike—our new Berenice Abbott edition is open for business. Cheese Store, 276 Bleecker St lays bare the luscious offerings in the storefront window at Mandaro’s cheese shop in the South Village, shot by Abbott on February 2nd, 1937. Luckily, this would have been a few years after prohibition officially ended, so if Abbott happened to pick up a souvenir she could wash down her artisanal cheese with a fine bottle of wine. And nearly next door would have been Zito’s Bakery, captured in an image also in our Abbott collection that pairs nicely with our new release. Does it get any better than bread and cheese?

The sign on the window reads “Mandaro Latticini Freschi”, latticini freschi translating to “fresh dairy products” in Italian. Below the window you’ll read “Ricotta tutta creama” (whole milk ricotta) and “Ricotta fina” (fine ricotta). Wheels and wedges of cheese large and small festoon the storefront ledge, salumi and perhaps a few peppers hanging sensuously overhead. It’s a feast for the eyes, shot tenderly, truly, and with respect.

Mandaro’s was one of many businesses catering to the burgeoning Italian immigrant population settling in Greenwich Village between the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. From the 1880s and the 1920s alone, over 50,000 Italians put roots down in the area. Once home to large Irish and African-American populations, the South Village became an Italian enclave representing yet another community that has shaped the texture of New York City to this day. Clusters of specialty gustatorial destinations like Mandaro’s have had a lasting impact on the city’s food culture—many came to be regarded as NYC institutions. Around the time Abbott shot Cheese Store, 276 Bleecker St, these shops provided a taste of home, furnishing customers with the fresh ingredients needed to carry on their culinary traditions.

To walk into stores like Mandaro’s was to embrace a nostalgic sort of sensory overload. In his book Greenwich Village Vignettes, Alfred Canecchia writes, “The aroma of the multitude of cheeses that wafted through the store was a catalyst to one’s appetite. Mandaro also carried a variety of pickles and olives. As a small boy I remember the barrels that held these products being as tall as I was. They lined the sawdust filled floor in front of the counter displaying the latticini freschi. These casks brimmed with green, black and brown olives, or whole pickles that floated in thick brine.”

Shops like Mandaro’s also spoke to a key aspect of the area’s thriving businesses: shop owners were able to pass down trades to their children, carrying on a legacy and feeding the long term success of the community. The Mandaro storefront seen in Cheese Store, 276 Bleecker St is a symbol of the industry and entrepreneurship of one growing immigrant populace, but it also signifies the displacement of another. Abbott was interested in these changing demographics, and the buildings they brought with them.

Cheese Store, 276 Bleecker St is one of the thousands of images Abbott shot as part of her Changing New York series, launched in 1935 for the Federal Arts Project. The project drew inspiration from famed photographer and flâneur Eugène Atget’s documentary style as he captured the streets of Paris before its buildings disappeared into modernization. Similarly, Abbott sought to document the architectural history of New York City before it vanished. But her interest went beyond preservation—she was fascinated by the built environment and saw it as not just a demonstration of design and form, but a rich source of sociological study.

Abbott believed the urban habitat said as much about humanity as a face or body, and that it deserved loving documentation in all its iterations. She once said “America to be interpreted honestly must be approached with love void of sentimentality”. The images in Changing New York show the city in all its unfixed glory, a city forever in flux, a landscape perpetually reshaping one cheese shop at a time.