Tony Danza “Cha Chas” to Little Italy’s Past at Alleva Dairy
This article was written by by Alfonso Guerriero, a teacher at P.S. 126.
There are no movie directors yelling “cut,” or noticeable paparazzi with high-powered lenses in the vicinity. There are no television crews following the former professional boxer turned-actor, producer, dancer, talk-show host, teacher and now — cheese shop owner.
Instead of Broadway lights or red carpets, Tony Danza is surrounded by arancini, mozzarella sticks, meatballs and stuffed peppers. The 66-year old Hollywood actor has the physique of a twenty-five year old. His baseball hat is on backwards and he looks more like a cool hipster than a gracefully aging television actor.
Danza, dressed in black sweat pants, wears a red t-shirt with the word “Alleva” written in thin white lettering. Alleva Dairy is the cheese store that he co-owns on the corner of Grand and Mulberry streets in Little Italy. On this day, like many mornings and afternoons, the popular actor is seen entering and leaving Alleva — only this time he is getting ready for the Feast of San Gennaro, the street festival held every September since 1926. He is working behind an outdoor food stand. A passerby is overheard saying, “The feast is not the same as when I was growing-up,” but nothing stays the same.
Since Danza’s arrival on this day, a big crowd has formed around the food stand. Curious onlookers get a glimpse of the celebrity. Many are waiting in-line to order the cannon size Alleva meatballs and hope for a selfie with the actor. Others are clueless as to “who’s the boss,” (no pun intended) behind the food stand. For a brief moment, Danza relieves one of the workers and takes an order from a couple. They appear to be unfazed by the celebrity service.
In a New York second, the previous employee returns, leaving Danza to pick-up the empty food trays. He proceeds to carry the stainless steel trays away from the stand and walks a few feet to Alleva’s side entrance. Just as he opens the door, someone yells from the crowded street, “Nice to see ya, Tony.” He nods and the door closes behind him.
Karen King, Alleva’s other co-owner, is the widow of Tony Danza’s boxing manager John Cha Cha Ciarcia. She inherited the business when her husband passed away in 2015. King is one of the judges for the second annual Meatball Eating Contest at San Gennaro. The contest is held in memory of her late husband, who was also the proprietor of Cha Cha’s In Bocca Al Lupo on Mulberry Street.
It was about four years ago that Ciarcia (the unofficial Mayor of Little Italy) convinced the television star of Who’s the Boss and Taxi to reconnect with his Italian-American roots by becoming a partner in the cheese store. Ciarcia was a larger-than-life figure in Little Italy. As King explained “My husband loved this community.”
As Ciarcia witnessed Little Italy fading, he was determined to buy Alleva Dairy, one of the last remnants of the neighborhood’s traditional past. It is the oldest cheese store in the United States. The original owner, Pina Alleva, immigrated here (from Benevento) and opened her cheese store at the present location in 1892. In 2014, the Alleva family decided it was time for a change. Ciarcia saw it as an opportunity to carry on a family business. Today Danza is helping to sustain Ciarcia’s vision. “It feels like my mission to keep this piece of my Italian-American history alive,” he explained.
Another celebrity friend, actor Vinny Pastore, was on hand for the festival. He was a side judge during the Meatball Eating Contest, and took time out to remember his good friend. “Cha Cha was the reason why I got back to my Italian-American roots,” said Pastore.
Danza exits the store’s kitchen with a smoldering tray of sausages and peppers draped with onions. He has a look of determination and repeats the routine of filling up the empty trays with food from the kitchen. On one of his short trips between the shop and concession, the actor spots me observing his moves and says, “Try some of the food.” I had already ordered an Alleva meatball with marinara sauce before he arrived. The delicious round piece of meat had texture and was very tasty. When Danza came back for the fourth time, I called over to him to praise the meatballs; he seemed too busy to respond.
Growing up in the 80s, I saw Danza’s television sitcoms from time-to-time, but was more interested in seeing his co-star, Alyssa Milano. I did not know much about Tony Danza until I met Karen King, his partner in Alleva. She convinced me to read Danza’s book, I’d like to Apologize To Every Teacher I Ever Had. It’s about his experiences as an English teacher in Philadelphia in 2010; a television crew followed Danza around for a reality series that year. I was turned off by the initial premise, but then realized his story was truly authentic. I could relate to it as a high school educator in an urban school.
I gained a great deal of respect reading his story and meeting Danza. The Brooklyn-born actor attended college in Iowa on a wrestling scholarship and later graduated with a history major. He had aspirations to become a teacher but Hollywood was far too tempting and lucrative to turn down. Danza’s father was a garbage collector and his mother, a seamstress, emigrated from Campobello di Mazara in the province of Trapani, Sicily. It was clear as I watched Danza repeat his role behind the food stand that he adopted his parents’ work ethic.
Danza has invested his money and time to maintain an established business that is well over a century old. He is sometimes known to greet customers and work behind the cash register or in the kitchen. It is places like Alleva Dairy that offer a community hope and substance. Put simply, Alleva Dairy is a gem. It’s the definition by old-fashioned charm — with dangling prosciutto and salami that hang from the original tin ceiling, workers who know your first name and customers who come back year after year and decade after decade because the shop reminds them of home.
The cadence of the neighborhood has sadly changed. These changes could have an upside if the right people are involved in preserving what remains. Danza’s presence in Little Italy may help restore some character to a neighborhood that has been decaying for a number of years. In my experience, I saw a famous actor putting in the time — not just to add to his own wealth — but to contribute to his dear friend’s legacy and proudly preserve a part of his cultural heritage.