Yesterday I took my MetroGuide associate producer Beth Archipoli to Little Italy to prepare for a television story. Our first stop was the nearly century-old DiPalo's Dairy. Louis DiPalo now runs the store his grandfather started. Louis is a true believer: He believes in the sanctity of Italian cheeses like Reggiano and Gorgonzola, and he believes in the sanctity of the American immigrant experience. When my friend and TV-show co-host Jeff Steingarten wanted to explore every nook and cranny of Parmigiano Reggiano in his typically obsessive way, he went to Louis to help him out. Of course, he also went to Parma, because in Jeffrey's mind you can't write about any food until you've eaten it in its place of origin. We disagree on this point and on quite a few others.
But I digress. Louis told me that there are four seasons for Reggiano, and that Jeff was partial to the fall cheeses, because they were the richest and biggest in flavor. I asked if he or anyone could really tell the difference between each season's cheese. He said that absolutely you could, and that when I brought my MetroGuide crew he would try to have all four seasons for me to taste. I tried to buy a pound of Montasio cheese from Louis. That's the cheese the Friulians in northern Italy use to make fricos, crunchy cheese fritters created by grating the cheese into a pile right into a fry pan. The fat from the cheese keeps it from sticking. Louis refused to sell me the Montasio he had on hand. "If you're using it to make fricos," he said, "Wait until I get the aged Montasio in. It makes a better frico."
Louis was looking forward to the shoot. "You know, there's not much left of the Italian-American community here. Most of them have made it and moved up and out. So, it would be good if you could show there's a few of us left still doing the same things our fathers and grandfathers did, in the exact same way they did it." He paused for a second before continuing. "You know, I'm not one of these people who resents all the changes around here," he says, pointing to all the Chinese stores and restaurants that now surround his store. "Because when I see all these people working hard, trying to do right by their families, I realize that me and my family were them 50 years ago. You could just replace their Chinese faces with the faces of the Italians from Naples and Calabria that settled here before them. That's the American immigrant experience." I nodded knowingly, because I knew he was right. After all, to whom was he telling this? An Eastern European Jew whose family had moved from Poland to the Lower East Side (my grandmother sold pickles out of a wooden barrel) to Brooklyn and the Bronx, out to Long Island, and finally back to Manhattan.
As I walked to the subway from DiPalo's, stopping at Balthazar (extraordinary lemonade, fruit focaccia, and baguette, lousy hot chocolate), Ceci-Cela (the best almond tuilles in Gotham), and Lombardi's (to look at the newly roofed outdoor eating area that's built right on top of the pizza oven), I realized that people such as Louis are what keep me searching for the good stuff, the real stuff, the honest stuff, all over New York, and the rest of the country, for that matter. Because the good stuff is not just the four seasons of Reggiano, or the aged Montasio cheese that will make the perfect frico. Louis DiPalo himself is the good stuff, too.