While the country has seen a meteoric rise in demand for plant-based food products — just ask your local barista — dairy isn’t dead.
The admittedly not very scientific evidence? In the past nine months, the number of specialty cheese shops in Rhode Island has doubled, and at least two more plan to open this summer, proving that despite myriad milk alternatives — think almond, oat, cashew, soy, rice, hemp and coconut — there’s plenty of demand for cow, goat, sheep, buffalo and other animal-based cheeses throughout the Ocean State.
Here are some of Rhode Island’s specialty cheese shops.
“We both moved here from the Boston area — and I definitely think the restaurants are better in Rhode Island than Boston — but it seemed like there was nowhere with a comparable quality to buy things to make things at home, and if you were going to have people over,” said Sasha Goldman, who met her future business partner, Chelsea Morrissey, through their daughters (Goldman has two, Morrissey three, ranging in age from 6 to 14). Goldman settled in Barrington with her young family, and soon discovered the diverse, bountiful flavors of neighboring Warren. “Warren felt like a culinary destination, and it felt like a hub of really interesting small businesses. Ninety percent of them are women-owned, which is very cool,” said Goldman.
When she and Morrissey spotted a commercial-use cottage on bustling Water Street, the cheese wheels started turning. “We basically saw the space for rent and thought it was meant to be. It just seemed like the perfect spot,” explained Goldman. Wedge opened in December, and while it stocks imported staples like Parmigiano-Reggiano, the two women have intentionally sought out curious, off-the-beaten path cheeses from small, Northeast-based makers. “We want people to come here and feel it is a place where they can make a culinary discovery,” said Goldman. She points to a cheese they source from coastal Maine, “Rockweed,” made by Lakin’s Gorges Cheese in Waldoboro. “[It] has seaweed down the middle because the woman who makes it, her farm is right on the water, and she harvests local seaweed and she wanted her cheese to have a sense of place, so that kind of thing.”
Wedge has also ventured into collaborative projects with cheesemongers. This spring, they partnered with High Lawn Farm, a family-owned dairy farm in the Berkshires, to create “Berkshire Road,” a limited release clothbound cheddar that will be available at the shop starting Friday. “It has mellow notes of sweetgrass and an extra funk from being bound in cloth during the aging process,” said Goldman. “The cheese is emblematic of Wedge’s core mission — to showcase small-batch, delicious products made with passion and care. Berkshire Rhode is an accessible and versatile cheddar ... Like the shop itself, it celebrates the New England food community and the joy of collaboration.” 279 Water St. in Warren, 401-252-4189, wedgeri.com
Luca and Christina Mignogna opened Mozz on Newport’s tony Bellevue Avenue at the beginning of last summer. The cornerstone of the Italian specialty food purveyor, cafe, and cheese shop is, as the name implies, fresh mozzarella cheese. Luca Mignogna learned how to make the creamy cheese in his native Molise, the mountainous region in southern Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea known for mozzarella as well as caciocavallo, pecorino, stracciatella, and other “pasta-filata” cheeses – cheeses made via a laborious cycle in which curds are stretched by hand.
“Mozzarella is meant to be enjoyed fresh on the day it’s made,” says Christina Mignogna, “and being able to offer a fresh, daily-made buffalo mozzarella is even more spectacular for us. We are also currently making scamorza, ricotta, primo sale and stracciatella and burrata.” The couple have their sights set on expanding the house-made selection to include aged cheeses as well, including caciotta, caciocavallo and ricotta salata.
The couple’s first foray into the cheese business was in Amesbury, Mass., where they sold their cheese under the Wolf Meadow Farm name and discovered a passion for educating others about craft cheesemaking. By the time they relocated to Newport, they had a vast network of fellow cheesemakers, whose varieties can be found in the case at Mozz today. “We decided to incorporate some of our favorite cheeses that we absolutely wanted access to and couldn’t find on [the] island. The whole premise of our store — as opposed to Wolf Meadow Farm where we were strictly producing our own products — is to create a place where we could share some of our favorite specialty items and cheeses,” says Mignogna. “We always joke that Mozz was born out of a selfish endeavor to eat these cheeses, [and] specialty grocery items, and drink this coffee that we couldn’t find anywhere. But the idea of opening a store was for the pleasure of sharing.” 181 Bellevue Ave. in Newport, 401-324-7065, mozznewport.com
When the pandemic hit, seasoned restaurant industry veterans Ashley LaPlante and Tim Fichera had a harsh reality check. “We realized it’s not really a sustainable lifestyle,” said LaPlante. They met at Juniper, a Mediterranean restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., where Fichera served as executive chef and LaPlante was the beverage director. The two shared an appreciation for nearby Wasik’s Cheese Shop, which has been in the business for nearly 60 years, and concluded their hometown of Barrington could use such a specialty shop.
Since Rind opened in November, it has hit the ground running. LaPlante estimates half of the people who walk through the door do so with intent, while for the other half, Rind is a pleasant discovery. (It’s serendipitous that Grapes & Grains, well known for fine wines, craft beer and specialty spirits, is a neighbor.) “During the pandemic, maybe people had more time to research their food and maybe they’re eating a little more consciously,” LaPlante said. “I do think more people are becoming informed about the downside of big dairy businesses, so I think that might be part of why there are more cheese shops coming up; just supporting people who take care of their animals and make good quality products.”
Sourcing is critical to the couple. “We try to make sure we know where the cheese is made, and where they get their milk from, which is really important. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of the time, cheese is not made where the cows or the animals are milked, necessarily. It can be harder to trace that sometimes, so we try to find humanely sourced cheeses.” For their European varieties, the couple strives to ensure the products have PDO status, or protected designation of origin, which ensures food products have been produced, processed and developed in a specific geographical area. 24 Bosworth St. #8 in Barrington, (401) 246-1011, rindcheeseshop.com
Milk & Honey
“It is just so lovely to see how food is a language that so many more people are speaking and are passionate about. It really connects all kinds of people,” said Molly Becher, manager of Milk & Honey in Portsmouth. One of the more tenured cheese shops in Rhode Island, Milk & Honey amassed a loyal following during the decade it thrived in Tiverton before moving to Portsmouth’s Old Almy Village in 2019 under the ownership of Sheryl Callaghan.
Today, the shop carries few locally made cheeses but a hearty imported collection from France, Holland and Germany. “The two cheeses out of France which are my favorite are Brebirousse d’Argental as well as the Delice de Bourgogne,” said Becher. “Both are brie-style cheeses, which are really, really lovely.” A domestic cheese that tops her list hails from the Pacific Northwest: Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in southern Oregon. After the cheese ages in caves for 9 to 11 months, each wheel is hand wrapped in organic, biodynamic Syrah grape leaves that have soaked in pear spirits. Becher says the creamery typically only allocates one order per year to Milk and Honey, but they just received a new shipment. Her voice sounds like she’s just scored tickets to Taylor Swift’s upcoming shows at Gillette Stadium.
Many of Milk & Honey’s cheeses are carried year-round, and some can be found at the store’s sister shop, Aquidneck Meats & Provisions in neighboring Middletown. Becher points out that the same cheese can taste different depending on when you enjoy it, as flavor is imparted by what the animal has been grazing on. She cites Midnight Moon, a matured, gouda-style cheese. “Sometimes we will get one in that is just a little sweeter, and we are always testing them when we get them in, so that way, we are giving the best flavor notes about the cheese to our customers.” 1016 East Main Road #2a in Portsmouth, 401-624-1974, milkandhoneyri.com
The Cheese Wheel Village Market
One of the anchors of Tiverton Four Corners, The Cheese Wheel looks like the quintessential Farm Coast cheese shop with its picture-perfect, weathered cedar shingles and an antique wagon out front. Owner Diana LeFrancois’s daughter-in-law, Emily Brayton, manages the shop and said with the region being such a popular summer destination, they often serve well-traveled customers looking for different types of cheeses they’ve tasted abroad. “So when they come in, they may see something that they remember, or something that reminds them of a cheese they may have eaten when they were in Spain or Italy or France,” Brayton said. Most of the cheeses at the shop are imported, Brayton said, though they do carry products from Rhode Island’s own Narragansett Creamery, Cricket Creek Farm in Massachusetts, and Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont.
Like most cheese shops, Brayton said they look to find cheese not carried elsewhere. For example, Testun al Foglie di Castagno, a goat and cow’s milk cheese, is aged a year and a half and wrapped in chestnut leaves, which impart an earthy aroma and a sweet, nutty flavor. “It takes about 10 weeks to import, so it’s a really long pre-order and it’s just really, really delicious,” she said.
One part of the business she particularly enjoys, along with her colleagues, is the ability to educate customers. “People really don’t know there’s so much to know about cheeses until we get talking to them,” Brayton explained. “A lot of times people will come in and say, ‘Hey I had this cheese once here and it tasted like this,’ and if we don’t have it, we’re really good at pinpointing something they would like just based on what the customer’s taste preference is.” 3838 Main Road in Tiverton Four Corners, 401-816-5069, thecheesewheelri.com
Edgewood Cheese Shop & Eatery
“Specialty cheese has really been growing over the past 20 years. You look back and people didn’t even know what goat cheese was,” laughs Adrienne D’Arconte. Both she and husband Casey D’Arconte are experienced restaurateurs who wanted to share their appreciation for cheese with their community. “When we opened, there really weren’t any specialty cheese shops, especially in our neighborhood, and for us it was kind of a passion project.”
D’Arconte believes the increase in cheese shops in Rhode Island can be credited to consumers becoming savvier about knowing where their food comes from and if, for example, the cheese comes from a farmer who takes good care of their animals. “People have been learning more and searching out that experience — I think that is the growth of the specialty cheese industry in general,” she said. She also credits the rising popularity of charcuterie boards — a spread of cured meats typically alongside specialty cheeses, nuts, crackers, honey and other gourmet foods — whether the customer is building a board themselves or ordering one at the shop.
Edgewood Cheese Shop & Eatery is marking eight successful years in business and has stuck to their original mission to teach people about great cheeses while eliminating the intimidation factor. “That is why we sample heavily, and we want to talk to people about the cheese: because we always want them to have that great experience. I always say, it’s like the adult version of being able to be a kid in a candy store.” 1828 Broad St. in Cranston, 401-941-2400, edgewoodcheeseshop.com
East Side Cheese & Provisions
Despite owning a successful food consultancy agency, Jeff and Angie DiMeo long talked about having a specialty cheese shop of their own. Cheese had been Jeff DiMeo’s life’s work, first behind the counter at Bread & Circus in Wellesley, Mass., then staying on after the company was acquired by Whole Foods. He grew his resume working for cheese importers, cheese makers and with an organic foods supermarket chain. When they met, the two shared an immediate bond for food, dining and specialty cheese, and thrived helping others with a passion for food and exceptional cheeses. But they were always on the prowl for their own brick and mortar.
“Jeff and I have looked at all sorts of spaces, in all sorts of places, before any of these new cheese shops had opened. It’s been on our radar a long time, but it’s always been trying to find the right location, the right landlord, and the right space that’s ready for a cheese shop — at the right time,” Angie DiMeo said. For years, the couple lived in Providence’s Wayland Square neighborhood, with a view from their apartment of an idyllic — but occupied — retail space. “We probably looked at each other a thousand times and said, ‘That’s a good spot for a cheese shop.’” So when she spotted a vacancy and sign in the window of that very space at the end of March, the couple had signed a letter of intent with the landlord by sundown.
The DiMeos are currently navigating the gauntlet of permitting and acting as general contractors to build out the space. They expect to open the doors of East Side Cheese & Provisions mid-summer, and said their longtime relationships with cheesemakers near and far give them an advantage.
“We can go after the more special and artisan things that make our industry more unique. We’ll carry the big cheeses, of course, we have to, but we can deviate a little bit from the script and curate our own collection,” Jeff DiMeo explained. “I think the Rhode Island palate has really become more sophisticated, and people enjoy cheese and I think they are enjoying it in a much more meaningful way,” he said. “We’re going to see more cheese shops opening in Rhode Island and I love that. The more cheese shops that open around the state is only going to be better for us, and everybody else.” 17 South Angell St. in Providence, 401-450-0273, eastsidecheese.com
Wickford Cheese & Sundry
Busy Brown Street in Wickford will soon welcome back a well known name, in the community and the food space, in the North Kingstown village. Brad Dubé grew up in the food business and was a familiar face to many at his parents’ shop, Wickford Gourmet. Joe and Donna Dubé sold that business in 2005 but continued to operate the Wickford Gourmet Factory Outlet, which sold cooking, entertaining and home goods, until retiring recently. Brad Dubé has been a New York-based cheese importer and distributor for decades, and plans to open Wickford Cheese & Sundry early this summer. 26 Brown St. in Wickford.