Inspired by our partnership with Comté, one New York City cheesemonger waxes poetic about her favorite Manhattan cheese shop.
Once upon a time there were only a handful of shops that sold real cheese in New York City and the term “cheesemonger” was not a known thing.
Fast forward a half-century and shiny new specialty shops dot the city map in almost every neighborhood. Today’s cheese shop is often designed to feel cozy and “super neighborhoody” (as I once overheard a cheese shop regular say), despite often being pretty new to the neighborhood, and new to the cheese industry itself.
I enjoy the new normal more than the average cheese-obsessed New Yorker, but I can also get pretty nostalgic for the O.G. specialty shops of my childhood. Does anyone else remember just how thick that layer of sawdust used to be at the original Fairway!? And, was there any other more transporting experience than walking through the door at Zabars in the mid-1980’s?! My love of those shops had nothing to do with cute design elements, beautiful shelving, or high-brow product packaging. The products tasted amazing and there was a no-nonsense approach to getting them in my family’s shopping cart.
Good news for all of us: time travel is possible! Tucked between the East Side’s old school Sutton Place and Turtle Bay neighborhoods (for those from out of town, that's First Avenue at 52nd Street in Manhattan) sits an unassuming storefront and a shop that’s not new to any New Yorker with pre-Bloomberg stripes: welcome to Ideal Cheese.
Launched in the mid-1950’s as a family-owned butter and eggs company, beautiful fixtures and Hollywood lighting are not the focus here. For this native New Yorker it’s always a breath of fresh – albeit cheese-y – air. The important elements don’t need a lot of polish: the cheese looks great, and is displayed on nearly every available countertop and showcased in the cooler clearly and unadorned. Don’t let the simple, no-frills nature of the space fool you though, there are some true treasures for the turophile ( a connoisseur of cheese, a cheese fancier) nestled among this varied selection.
As someone who has opened and managed multiple cheese shops, here’s where I share with you my no-longer-secret litmus test for cheese shop quality:
When I walk into a cheese shop, new or old, I first investigate the answer to one simple question: how’s the Comté?
At Ideal Cheese, there’s always at least two different wheels of Comté, and sometimes three! Last time I dropped in, a fresh, grassy four-month old wheel had just been cut. The twenty-four month Comté wasn’t far away on the counter, and my heart sang as savory, brothy, and onion flavors came through with a quick taste.
In an ever-changing city, it’s always a relief to see business as usual in this understated spot (O.G. NYC!). Regulars come and go constantly, and Comté is truly an anchor of the selection. “They start calling every October, asking if the Comté is in yet!” owner Michael Binetti explains, amazed at his customers’ pre-holiday season enthusiasm for longer-aged wheels. Show up and buy as much as you can while they’ve got it. Don’t worry, you won’t be distracted by décor or precious pastries: you’re there for the cheese and it’s in great shape.
Inspired by Comté's ancient production methods and special cows (!), we set out to learn more about just why this cheese smells and tastes the way it does.