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BY JEFFERSON SIEGEL | Around midday on Saturday Anthony Campanelli, the co-owner of Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan St., was bent over a sink in the store’s back room. He reached into a pan filled with balls of smoked mozzarella and, one by one, washed the gritty residue off each.
Saturday was the last day Campanelli, 60, would have to “wash the smoke off,” as he has been doing five days a week for years. Yet another locally owned business was closing — this time, Joe’s Dairy — and word had been spreading throughout the neighborhood for days.
“We can’t keep up with everybody else,” Anthony said as he passed another pan of the washed “smokes” to his brother, Vincent, who was wrapping each in plastic.
“It’s not the way it was when we first opened the store. It was more family oriented,” he explained. “The superstores came into existence and they blew everybody away.”
Anthony started working at Joe’s Dairy fresh out of school in 1973, when Sullivan St. was a block of mom-and-pop stores. A few doors down at 149 Sullivan was Rocky’s Fruits and Vegetables. Nearby was Mario’s Butcher Shop. Across the street was Canepa Bakery and Cardinali Brothers Grocery. Four years later, Anthony bought Joe’s.
Today local businesses with names like Once Upon A Tart and the Aroma Espresso Bar line nearby streets, but even these stores carry Joe’s cheeses.
“We started it off as a simple little store to provide a service that people would enjoy,” Anthony said. “Little did we know it would last this long.”
As he washed another tray of smoke, the front of the store filled with customers anxious for one more delicacy, a gorgonzola mascarpone torte, homemade pesto or smoked mozzarella.
The store’s distinctive smoked mozzarella balls are made by, first, cutting large mozzarella chunks into smaller wads. Then they’re put in boiling water before going into the smoker in the back alley for two to three minutes.
“There’s so little authentic left,” lamented Merle Kaufman, a Villager since 1968. “It’s just wonderful to walk into an old place like the Lower East Side used to be.”
On line behind her was Lisa Giunta, whose parents opened Arturo’s on West Houston St. Giunta, who grew up in the neighborhood, now runs the restaurant.
“We always bought from Joe’s Dairy for pizza and mozzarella salads” for Arturo’s, she said, adding that they will continue buying Joe’s Dairy products from its wholesale location in Fairfield, New Jersey.
“The rent has nothing to do with it,” Anthony explained of his decision to close. “It’s a sign of the times — the economy is just too much. You can’t keep up with your expenses.
“It’s not a decision we want to make, it’s a decision we have to make. It’s just sad.”
Micki McGee, a customer for a quarter century, agreed.
“What we see happening in the neighborhood is hypergentrification,” she said. “It’s been a livable neighborhood for moderate-income families for many, many years. The hypergentrification from the Hudson Square redevelopment is reshaping the neighborhood.”
Closer to where she lives, McGee has been battling an expansion project by God’s Love We Deliver at Spring St. and Sixth Ave., which is selling its air rights to a new luxury development project.
Cindy Keiter of the Village was more emotional.
“My heart broke because these mom-and-pop shops, you can’t replace them,” she said. “Once the door shuts, they’re gone and they’re not coming back.” Keiter bought $20 worth of olives and mozzarella, but gave counterpersons Ro Pianoforte and her daughter, Robin, an extra $10. “Go buy yourselves a glass of wine,” Keiter said.
Anthony hasn’t yet made plans for the future.
“Right now everything’s in a whirlwind,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll start to reflect a little.”
He put down a handful of smoked mozzarella balls to answer the phone.
“We’re open until 6,” he told the caller, before adding, “Yes, today’s our last day.”
At the worktable, Vincent finished wrapping another pan of smokes and passed it to Ro out front.
“Tomorrow I go out and mow the lawn,” he said.
Although ending its retail business, Joe’s Dairy will continue to supply local restaurants with its famous mozzarella.